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How could she have lost her sister's wedding dress?
Scarlett Hanson closed her eyes, willing herself not to leap across the customer service counter of AirMexico airlines and throttle the petite brunette airline representative in her cute light blue uniform and pigtails, typing a description of Scarlett's lost "suitcase" into her computer.
"It's not in a suitcase," Scarlett repeated. "It's a black, zippered hanging bag, with a pink ribbon on the handle, and please, please, my sister will kill me if you can't find it." Scarlett spread her sweaty hands on the cool smooth counter, aware of the line forming behind her. The rest of the passengers on Flight 2137 had already cleared customs, the officers at the customs desks now resuming conversations with their colleagues while the next bunch of tourists from the icy north herded through passport control. Beyond the glass doors, she spotted palm trees and cabbies in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops, peddling freedom.
"It's a wedding dress!" Oh, she hadn't meant to yell, but that's what sixteen hours of travel on nothing more than a bag of peanuts and a Diet Coke did. It didn't help that she'd had about six hours' notice before that to block out vacation time at her temp agency, pack, pick up her sister's dressas well as her maid-of-honor dressfrom a Nicollet Mall boutique in Minneapolis and catch her flight.
She just needed to calm down. Everything was going to be just fine. Hadn't her flight made it out before the storms across the nation had grounded other flights? If that wasn't divine providenceallowing her to make it onto the overbooked connection in Houstonthen she didn't know what was.
See, just because she felt as if God had forgotten her didn't mean it was true. He did care about her, and she didn't have to be a high-maintenance, high-stress, center-of-the-world diva like Bridgett to prove it.
Although, having her sister's dress suddenly appear might prove God's attention to the details.
"Are you sure the bag isn't listed on the manifest?" She wanted to bang her head on the counter. Why hadn't she carried her sister's dress on the plane instead of checking it?
Or better, why hadn't Scarlett just let her sister's frantic phone call go to voice mail two days ago?
Maybe because, after the fiasco at the engagement party, she just wanted to make things right.
Scarlett's feet had begun to sweat in her Uggs. She should have left her ski jacket in the parking garage at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. Please let her have remembered her swimsuitalthough knowing Bridgett, the bride wouldn't have scheduled beach time. Just lots of it's-all-about-Bridgett time.
Scarlett shed the jacket and shoved it into the expandable pocket of her carry-on bag.
"Oh, I found it!" Pigtails peered at the screen, squinting. "It'soh, no "
Scarlett gripped the counter, leaning forward, hoping for a glimpse of the screen. "What's 'oh, no'?"
"It's in Detroit."
Detroit. Of course it was.
Maybe it wasn't too late to catch a return flight back to the States.
"We can have it here by tomorrow, probably, Saturday at the latest."
"She's getting married Saturday morning."
Pigtails smiled, white teeth against her beautifully tanned skin. "If you leave the name of your hotel, we can send it out to you when it arrives."
Perfect. Scarlett dug out her cell phone and scrolled down to the notes. "The Lost Breezes Hotel."
"You know that isn't actually in Cancun, right? You have to take a ferry out to the island." The woman glanced behind her at the clock. "Oh, you'd better hurry. The last ferry to the island leaves in thirty minutes."
Of course it did. Scarlett grabbed one of the business cards on the counter. "I'll call you when I get to the resort."
"We hope you enjoy your stay in Cancun," Pigtails said, her eyes already tracking to the complainer behind her.
At this point, Scarlett had her doubts.
She practiced some deep breathing, not glancing at the clock as she lined up to go through customs.
The agent seemed to pity heror perhaps he just recognized a woman fraying as he released her and her carry-on bag into the country.
Welcome to Mexico. She passed the sign and entered a corridor, bordered by all manner of tourist services
tropical-colored signs advertising tours of lost coves and white-sand beaches, luxury golf packages, deep-sea fishing charters. She trolleyed her bag, the one with the chipped wheel that made a clipping sound as she walked, ignoring the calls of eager agents hoping to sell her a chance to swim with dolphins, learn to scuba dive or cook Mexican cuisine.
Thanks, but she was here for one reason: erase that horrid moment at the engagement party when she'd accused Bridgett of stealing Duncan, the groom.
Stealinghad she really used that word? That was the last time she drank champagne. Ever. One glass and her mouth stopped listening to her brain.
Scarlett smiled at a group of taxi drivers lingering in the cool air-conditioning of the airport and exited out onto the sidewalk. Her sister said a marked taxi would be waiting to take her and the last of the groomsmen to the resort. Please, don't let Bridgett have set her up on a blind date. Scarlett could see right through Bridgett's pitiful attempts over the past six months to set her up, straight to the guilty conscience behind it. But there was no need for it. She and Duncan had nevernot reallybeen a couple. Officially.
Regardless of the hours they spent hanging out after the church singles group events.
Regardless of the times they played tennis, or went cross-country skiing.
And, especially, regardless of what Scarlett may or may not have said at the engagement party.
No, she would be just fine at this wedding as a solo act. Singular. Dateless.
Scarlett had never seen palm trees. They lined the circular boulevard outside the airport. But she must have been miles from the ocean because she couldn't smell anything but exhaust.
Lost Breezesthere. She spotted a Hispanic man in a white silk shirt, jeans and flip-flops holding a laminated sign. "Lost Breezes?" she asked in English.
He smiled. "Si."
"Gracias." Finally, she might be able to use her four years of high-school Spanish.
He reached for her bag. Waithadn't she read something about people masquerading as cabbies and running off with carry-ons? She held her bag tighter. "I'll take it in the car with me," she saidor hoped she saidin Spanish.
He raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and opened the door of his sedan.
Indeed, the foreshadowed guest sat inside, waitingimpatiently, if she could read his body language. He looked over at her, his lips pursed, his eyes dark, sweat dampening the front of his white Oxford dress shirt. He wore a pair of jeans and black Converse sneakers, and made a feeble attempt to hide his irritation.
"Hi. Sorry I'm late." She set the carry-on on the floor then climbed in around it.
He gave her a tight smile. "Hi." He eyed her Uggs and possibly her turtleneck, but it was two degrees in Rochester, thank you very much. Just get her to a beach.
She sat back and noticed that, despite his perspiration, he didn't exactly smell bad. And, upon closer inspection, she might even call him cutetousled dark blond hair, golden-brown eyes, and it seemed he might spend some time in the gym. There was confidence in his posture, despite his impatience, as if he expected the world to be on time. And dressed appropriately. Exactly the kind of guy who might be interested in Bridgett.
Or, the kind of guy who might be her sister's cast-off. Oh, no, please
"I'm Luke. You must be my date." He offered his hand to her.
She knew it. For goodness' sake. She would kill Bridgett when she saw her.
"Okay. Well, I'm Scarlett. And I don't know what you were told, but I'm just here for the wedding. So, you're off the hook, pal. You don't have to be my plus-one." She gave him a tight smile, ignoring his hand.
He withdrew his hand and gave her a look. "Scarlett. Okay. I admit, I heard you like to work solo, but hey, I'm here to do a job, same as you. So, no, I don't think I'm off the hook, thanks."
Wow, that hurt. She liked to work solo? A job? What had her sister said to this guy? She liked a date just as much as the next girl. Just because she hadn't had one in well, her friendship with Duncan had nixed any real offers. Still, being her date for the weekend was a "job?"
"Thanks, but I just want to get this over with as painlessly as possible. So, really, I don't need your help."
And she didn't. With the exception of the dresswhich had to make it in on the next planeshe could handle this wedding with her eyes closed. Nothing short of a terrorist attack would keep her from making sure Bridgett had the wedding of her dreams, and paying the appropriate attention to her "date" would only dilute her focus. She put some sugar in her tone, however, because no manespecially one of Bridgett's palsliked getting shut out. "Thanks for the offer, though. I'll give you a good report, I promise." Then, as the taxi pulled away from the curb into the mess of traffic, she winked at him. No hard feelings.
He stared at her as if she'd slapped him. "Wow. You really think you're something, don't you?"
"Well, guess what? You're not getting rid of me quite that easily. For the next three days, I'm your partner, whether you like it or not. So buckle up, honey."
Awesome. She'd landed her own personal hero. Just what she needed.
Luke Dekker hated working a mission with an operative he didn't know. He'd read Staceyer, Scarlett, apparently, was the name she'd chosen for this opMeyer's dossier on the plane on the way over, and while she seemed capable on paper, meeting her in person had him second-guessing the entire assignment. Really, I don't need your help.
And now she looked at him with unadulterated horror on her face, as if he'd just propositioned her.
Luke had been to Cancun before. The first time was a spring-break trip in high school that he barely remembered. Not that he really wanted to remember anything from those days. Still, he didn't recall the small houses amidst towering resort hotels, palm trees and cracked sidewalks, dusty children playing in dirt lots, but maybe no one saw the back alleys of Cancun unless they really looked.
"I really do know what I'm doing. This isn't my first time around the block." He smiled, trying to lighten things up. Somehow, he'd gotten off on the wrong foot with her. Maybe because he kept sticking the other one in his mouth.
She looked even more offended, her eyes blinking.
"Well, I'm sure it's not." Then she closed her mouth and turned away from him, shaking her head as if trying to dislodge his words.
What sort of penance was this? So maybe he shouldn't have mouthed off when his boss, Chet Stryker, asked for volunteers for a mission to Cancun. "Hey, I need a tan, Chet." Did the guy not know sarcasm when he heard it?
Only, maybe the joke was on him, because in the six-hour turnaround where he threw something that resembled swim trunks and wrinkled dress clothes from the back of his closet into his bag, he hadn't even considered he might end up working with a snow queen.
Hopefully she packed her sunscreen, because the woman wore the hueand demeanorof Minnesota in January.
But he wasn't here to be just an accessory, thanks. This was just as much his mission as hers. And, despite Miss I-Work-Alone's confidence, the woman needed someone to watch her back as she pretended to be a bridesmaid. She'd be busy enough inserting herself into the bridal party of Lucia Romero, bride to Benito Sanchez, nephew of Augusto Sanchez, wanted drug lord and human-trafficking terroristand esteemed member of the guest list.
Lucia, a former law student, had been playing loving girlfriend to Benito for three years just for the chance to apprehend Augusto. And now, someone was trying to kill her. She needed people around her who she could trust to keep an eye on things until Augusto showed up to the wedding and the good guys used the opportune rare appearance to swoop in and nab him.
Hence, Lucia had turned to her old friend Chet Stryker and his international-security team. But Stryker International needed a few more female operatives on its team, because its only official female member had a severe bout of morning sickness.
Although, Mae, Chet's wife, had nearly gotten on the plane with Luke this morning anyway. Even when Chet told her he'd brought in an accomplished freelancer to partner with Luke. A real pro, no problem. Stacey Meyer.
A pro who preferred to work solo, according to her file. Her description, however, hadn't quite done her justice. Sure, the woman beside him didn't exactly qualify as striking, but she had a prettiness about her, something simple and muted that could probably get her in and out of countries unnoticed. She wore her brown hair in a messy ponytail, some of it waterfalling around her face, and her intense green eyes suggested she could turn a person cold with a look. The way she seemed to scrutinize everything, from the driver to the landscape to Luke, as if taking in every detail yes, he had no doubt she knew how to do her job alone. But too bad. "Listen, I know this isn't your first choice. Frankly, it's not mine, either"
"What, there were other choices? A lottery?"
"No. I mean, I volunteered. But I was also the only one available."
"Nice. I didn't realize you guys were in such demand."
What had Chet gotten him into? "I stay pretty busy."
She widened her eyes a moment, a flare of something he might normally peg as panic.
"Please, just stay away from me." She looked down at the space between them, then scooted more toward the window and crossed her arms and legs. A knot of offended female pride.
Or maybe this was about the job. She probably feared that he'd take advantage of his role as her fiancé.
Staying away might be a little difficult if they hoped to pull off this charade. Yet, because she was still staring out the window, still shaking her head in a sort of disbelief, he lowered his voice. "Listen, I'm a good guy, really, and I won't take advantage. And I know I'm not who you expected, but I'm not interested in anything but doing my job. We'll just get it done and go home."
She turned, and just for a moment she looked as if she might slap him. "How can I thank you for that ever-so-sweet warning, and for being willing to do this oh-so-offensive job? What would the world do without heroes like you?" Ow.