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Alexander Bajoran swiped his key card and pushed open the heavy oak door to his suite. He'd been halfway down the winding mile-long drive leading away from the luxurious yet rustic resortaptly named Mountain View Lodgewhen he realized he'd forgotten a stack of much-needed paperwork. Now he was late for his meeting, and it was going to be nearly impossible to make it into downtown Portland on time.
He let the door swing closed behind him as he marched toward the large cherrywood desk on the far side of the sitting area. Six steps in, he stopped short at the sound of someone else moving around in the suite. Turning toward the bedroom, he paused in the doorway, taking note of the woman stripping his bed and shaking her rear end to a song only she could hear.
She was wearing a maid's uniform, but sadly not one of the sexy French variety. Just a simple gray dress that did nothing to compliment her figure or coloring.
Her blond hair was pulled up and twisted at the back of her head, held in place by a large plastic clip, but he could still see bits of color peeking out here or there. A thin streak of black, then auburn, then blue running down one side and blending into the rest.
Yes, blue. The woman had blue hair. At least a few bits of it.
She was humming beneath her breath, the occasional odd lyric tripping off her tongue as she whipped back the top sheet, then a corner of the fitted one. The quilted coverlet was already in a heap on the floor.
As she danced around, oblivious to his presence, he noticed the glitter of earrings lining the entire length of one ear. Studs, hoops, dangles; there must have been seven or eight in her right ear alone. The left had only four that he could seethree near the lobe and one higher up near her temple.
Despite all the silver and gold and jeweled settings, he knew they had to be fake. No way could a chambermaid afford the real thing. Which was a shame, because she'd look good in diamonds. And he should knowdiamonds were his business.
Soiled sheets balled up in her arms, she turned suddenly, jumping back and giving a high-pitched shriek when she saw him standing there.
He held his hands up in the universal I-mean-you-no-harm gesture. "I didn't mean to startle you," he offered by way of apology.
Reaching up, she yanked the buds from her ears and tucked them into the pocket of the white apron that must have held her MP3 player. He could hear the heavy beat of her music as she fumbled to turn down the volume.
Now that he could look at her straight on, he noticed she wasn't wearing makeup
or not much, at any rate. Strange, considering her hair and jewelry choices. She even had a small gold hoop with a tiny fleck of cubic zirconia hanging from the outer edge of her right eyebrow.
Eyes still wide from the scare he'd given her, she licked her lips. "I'm sorry, I didn't know anybody would be here. I didn't see the sign on the knob."
He shook his head. "There wasn't one. I expected to be gone for the day, but forgot something I need for a meeting."
He didn't know why he was telling her this. He didn't normally spend a lot of time explaining himself to anyone. But the longer he stood here talking, the longer he got to look at her. And he did enjoy looking at her.
That, too, was unusual for him. The women he dated tended to be socialites from wealthy families. Polished and sophisticated, the type who spent their days at the garden club doing nothing more strenuous than planning their next thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraiser for the charity du jour.
Never before had he found himself even remotely attracted to someone with multicolored hair and excessive piercings. But the young woman standing in front of him was fascinating in an exotic-animal, priceless-piece-of-artwork way.
She seemed to be slightly disconcerted by his presence, as well, staring at him as if she expected him to bite.
"Is there anything you need, as long as I'm here?" she asked, nervously licking her lips over and over again. "Extra towels or glasses, that sort of thing?"
He shook his head. "I'm fine, thank you."
Then, because he couldn't think of anything else to say or any other reason to stand there, staring at the help as though she was on display, he moved away, heading back across the sitting room and grabbing up the file he'd forgotten. It was her turn to stand in the bedroom doorway while he slapped the manila folder against his free hand a couple of times.
"Well," he murmured, for no particular reason, "I'll leave you to it, then."
She inclined her head in acknowledgment, still watching him warily.
Walking to the suite's main door, he pulled it open and set one foot across the threshold into the hall. But before walking off, he couldn't resist turning back and taking one last glance at the intriguing young woman who had already returned to her job of changing his sheets.
"It was Alexander Bajoran," Jessica said in a harsh whisper, leaning so far across the small round deli table that her nose very nearly touched her cousin's.
"You're kidding," Erin returned in an equally hushed voice, her eyes going wide in amazement.
Jessica shook her head, crossed her arms over her chest and flopped back in her chair, causing her cousin to move forward in hers. Their sandwiches sat untouched in front of them, their ice-filled fountain drinks slowly producing rivulets of condensation down the sides of the paper cups.
"Did he recognize you?" Erin asked.
"I don't know. He didn't say anything, but he was looking at me a little funny."
Jessica flashed her a tiny grin. "The usual."
"Well, you do tend to stand out."
Jessica stuck her tongue out at her cousin's teasing. "We can't all be prim and proper Jackie O wannabes."
"Nobody's asking you to be Jackie O. The family just wishes you weren't quite so intent on being the next Courtney Love."
Following through on the natural instincts that had probably earned her that reputation in the first place, Jessica flipped her cousin a good-natured hand gesture. Not the least offended by the response, Erin merely rolled her eyes.
"Actually, your unique personal style may work in our favor. You don't look at all the way you did five years ago. Chances are, Bajoran won't have a clue who you are."
"I hope not. I'll try to switch floors with Hilda, though. That should keep me from accidentally bumping into him again."
"No, don't do that!" Erin said quickly. "The fact that he doesn't recognize you is a good thing. You can move around his suite freely without arousing suspicion."
"Arousing suspicion?" Jessica repeated. "Who am I James Bond?"
"If I could do it, I would, believe me," Erin told her with no small amount of bitterness leeching into her voice. "But you're the one he already thinks is a chambermaid."
Jessica narrowed her eyes. "Why does that matter?"
"Because it means you can move around the lodge without being noticed. You know what men like Bajoran are like. Rich and self-absorbed
to him, you'll be all but invisible."
Jessica understood her cousin's anger, really she did. Fifty years ago, Alexander Bajoran's grandfather and great-uncle had launched Bajoran Designs. Soon after, they'd begun a partnership with Jessica's and Erin's grandfathers, who owned Taylor Fine Jewels. Both companies had been based in Seattle, Washington, and together they'd been responsible for creating some of the most beautiful and valuable jewelry in the world. Million-dollar necklaces, bracelets and earrings worn by celebrities and royalty across the globe.
The Taylor-Bajoran partnership had lasted for decades, making both families extremely wealthy. And then one day about five years ago, Alexander had taken over Bajoran Designs from his father, and his first order of business had been to steal her family's company right out from under them.
Without warning he'd bought up a majority of shares of Taylor Fine Jewels and forced Jessica's and Erin's fathers off the Board of Directors so he could absorb the company into his own and essentially corner the market on priceless jewels and their settings.
Thanks to Alexander's treacherous move, the Taylor family had gone bankrupt and been driven out of Seattle almost overnight. They were far from destitute, but all the same, the Taylors were not used to living frugally. Jessica didn't think her mother was used to her new, more middle-class lifestyle even now, and Erin's mother had taken the reversal of fortune hardest of all.
Jessica was doing okay, though. Did she enjoy being a maid at a resort where she used to be a guest? Where she used to stay in a three-thousand-dollar-a-night suite and that her family could easily have purchased with a flick of the wrist?
Not always. But being a maid, working at a normal job like a normal person, gave her a freedom she'd never felt as a rich, well-known socialite. No way could she have gotten away with streaks in her hair and pierced everything when she'd been one of those Taylors. When she'd been attending luncheons at the country club with her mother and been the subject of regular snapshots by local and national paparazzi.
Money was good, but she thought anonymity might be a little bit better. For her, at least. For Erin, she knew the opposite was true.
"Why do I need to be invisible?" she asked finally. "It's lucky enough he didn't recognize me the first time. I should switch floors and maybe even shifts with one of the other girls before he does."
"No!" Erin exploded again. "Don't you see? This is our chance! Our chance to get back at that bastard for what he did to us."
"What are you talking about?" Thoroughly confused, Jessica shook her head. "How could we possibly get back at him for that? He's a millionaire. Billionaire. The CEO of a zillion-dollar company. We're nobodies. No money, no power, no leverage."
"That's right, we're nobodies. And he's the CEO of a zillion-dollar company that used to be ours. Maybe it could be again."
Before Jessica had the chance to respond, Erin rushed on. "He's here on business, right? That means he has to have business information with him. Paperwork, contracts, documents we could use to possibly get Taylor Fine Jewels back."
"Taylor Fine Jewels doesn't exist anymore. It's been absorbed into Bajoran Designs."
"So?" Erin replied with a shrug of one delicate shoulder. "It can always be un-absorbed."
Jessica didn't know how that would work. She wasn't sure it was even possible. But whether it was or it wasn't, what Erin was suggesting was insanity.
"I can't go poking around in his things. It's wrong. And dangerous. And corporate espionage. And definitely against Mountain View policy. I could lose my job!"
Her cousin made a sound low in her throat. "It's only corporate espionage if you're employed by a rival company. Which you're not, because Alexander Bajoran stole our company and put us all out on the street. And who cares if you lose that stupid job? Surely you can scrub toilets for the wealthy elite at some other high-priced hotel."
Jessica leaned back, stunned by the venom in her cousin's voice, as well as her obvious disdain for Jessica's occupation. Yes, she scrubbed toilets and stripped beds and vacuumed carpets instead of folding scarves and dressing mannequins at an upscale boutique like Erin, but she kind of liked it. She got to spend most of her time alone, got along well with the rest of the housekeeping staff and didn't have to claim her sometimes quite generous tips on her taxes.
And it kept her busy enough that she didn't have time to dwell on the past or nurse a redwood-size grudge against an old enemy the way her cousin obviously did.
"Come on, Jess. Please," Erin begged. "You have to do this. For the family. We may never get another opportunity to find out what Bajoran is up to, or if there's some wayany wayto rebuild the business and our lives."
She wanted to refuse. Should refuse. But the pain in Erin's voice and in her eyes gave Jessica pause.
She could maybe poke around a little.
"What would I have to do?" she asked carefully. "What would I be looking for?"
see if you can find some paperwork. On the desk, in his briefcase if he leaves it. Interoffice memos, maybe, or documents outlining his next top secret, underhanded takeover."
Against her better judgment, Jessica gave a reluctant nod. "All right, I'll do it. But I'm not going to get caught. I'll glance around. Keep my eyes open. But I'm not going to rummage through his belongings like a common thief."
Erin's nod was much more exuberant. "Fine, I understand. Just look around. Maybe linger over fluffing the pillows if he's on the phone
listen in on his conversation."
She wasn't certain she could do that, either, but simply acting like she would seemed to make her cousin happy enough.
"Don't get your hopes up, Erin. This has 'Lucy and Ethel' written all over it, and you know how their crazy schemes always turned out. I'm not going to jail for you, either. A Taylor with a criminal record would get even more press than one having to work a menial, nine-to-five job cleaning other people's bathrooms."
This was insane.
She was a former socialite turned chambermaid, not some stealthy spy trained to ferret out classified information. She didn't even know what she was looking for, let alone how to find it.
Her cart was in the hall, but she'd dragged nearly everything she needed to clean and restock the room in with her. Sheets, towels, toilet paper, the vacuum cleaner
If there were enough supplies spread out, she figured she would look busier and have more of an excuse for moving all over the suite in case anyonespecifically Alexander Bajorancame in and caught her poking around.
The problem was, his suite was pretty much immaculate. She'd been cleaning it herself on a daily basis, even before he'd checked in, and the Mountain View's housekeeping standards were quite high. Add to that the fact that Alexander Bajoran was apparently quite tidy himself, and there was almost nothing personal left out for her to snoop through.
Regardless of what she'd let her cousin believe, she was not going to ransack this room. She would glance through the desk, under the bed, in the nightstands, maybe inside the closet, but she was not going to root through his underwear drawer. Not when she didn't even know what she was supposed to be looking for.
Business-related what? Compromising what?
Jessica couldn't blame her cousin for wanting to find something incriminating. Anything that might turn the tables on the man who had destroyed the Taylors' livelihood and a few members of the family personally.
But how realistic was that, really? It had been five years since Bajoran's hostile takeover. He had moved on and was certainly juggling a dozen other deals and business ventures by now. And even if those weren't entirely on the level, she doubted he was walking around with a paper trail detailing his treachery.