Authors: Kelly Jamieson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
She'd had this conversation with her roommates many times. She was
responsible for this marriage ending. She did
entrap men. They made decisions of their own free will. She was just there. But Jessica Montgomery gave the impression of being deeply in love with her husband, and Ashlyn could understand why. He seemed like a nice guy.
nice. The fact that Ashlyn herself was so fiercely attracted to him was horrifying and embarrassing.
Ashlyn sighed as she dashed through traffic across the sunny street to her parked car. She tossed her backpack onto the passenger seat and started the engine. The heat in the car was smothering, and she rolled down the window.
Yeah, Jessica's husband had been really nice and really hot and really attracted to her, too. She remembered the way his intense dark eyes had locked onto hers, how they'd been so meltingly hot, so compelling. Her intense physical reaction to him had stunned her. She'd gone all warm and liquid inside, her thighs quivering. And then when he'd kissed her—especially that kiss outside when he'd taken her in his arms—a sweet, hot rush of pleasure had flowed through her veins, making her weak and dizzy. He'd smelled so good too; his clean, spicy masculine scent had made her want to bury her face in his neck and inhale him.
He hadn't seemed shifty or nervous or guilty, like many men did when cheating on their wives. Ashlyn had become a pretty good judge of body language and character over years of decoy work, and this guy had almost fooled her.
Having his kitchen renovated! Ha! She'd heard all kinds of stories. Some guys even admitted they were married, just looking for sex. And he'd even used a fake name—Zach. She sighed. The fact that he'd been so convincing just meant he was even more of a snake.
She decided to take the money to the office before going to school, since she wasn't comfortable carrying so much cash around. It wasn't far out of her way and if she was quick, she could still make it to class on time.
Farrell Investigations occupied the tenth floor of a twenty-story office tower. Ashlyn parked in a loading zone and put on her flashers while she ran in. She tapped a foot as she waited at the bank of elevators.
"Hi, Brenda,” she said, out of breath, as she entered the office. Brenda was almost sixty years old with brilliant auburn hair, black-lined eyes and porn-star shiny red lips. She looked tough but had warm eyes, and she dealt skillfully with clients.
"Hey, Ash, honey,” Brenda said. “Your dad wants to see you about another job. He's in his office."
"Oh, sh-shoot.” Ashlyn glanced at her watch. “I don't have much time."
Brenda's glossy red lips firmed. “You're always too busy to talk to him."
Ashlyn swallowed. “I have a class,” she muttered, heading down the hall. She went to the last office at the end, knocked, and then poked her head in. The offices of Farrell Investigations were large, nicely decorated and modern, giving the impression of a successful company. In fact, Farrell Investigations was the largest and best known investigation firm in Rocky Harbor.
"Ash.” Dave Farrell looked up from his computer. In his late forties, he was a big man, tall and barrel-chested, his brown hair frosted with silver. Reading glasses sat low on his nose, and he peered at her over them. “How did it go the other night?"
Ashlyn knew her dad intensely disliked her working as a sex decoy, but she was good at it, so he allowed it. He also knew better than to forbid his daughter to do something—that would only make her want to do it even more.
"Great,” Ashlyn answered. She didn't want to share her strange feelings about these clients with her dad. She'd gotten the goods, handed the evidence over and been paid. That was what mattered.
She tossed the envelope of cash onto his desk. “That's from the wife. Payment in full. Case closed."
He grimaced. “Good work.” He reached for a file folder on his desk and held it in his hands as he studied her. “I have another one, but ... you sure you want to do this?"
Ashlyn tensed. They weren't going to go down that path again, were they? She
did not have time for this. Time or energy. Her voice was firm when she replied. “I'm sure, Dad. What is it?"
He handed over the folder, and she flipped it open and scanned the documentation. “Can you meet with Mrs. Van Heusen this week sometime?"
"Sure,” she said. “But I have to go right now. Applied Crypto class."
"I thought you might have time for a coffee..."
She shook her head, determinedly ignoring the disappointment on her father's face. He kept making efforts to recover their relationship, but it just wasn't going to happen. Not after what he'd done to her mother. “Sorry. Gotta go."
"How was your test the other day?” he persisted.
He beamed. “Atta girl."
His praise only annoyed her. She saluted him with the file folder. “Bye, Dad.” And she was off at a run, as usual, to get to school on time. She'd look at the file later and call the wife to arrange a meeting.
"Leaving already?” Brenda asked as Ashlyn zipped through the small reception area.
Ashlyn spared a smile for the woman. Brenda was nice, and it wasn't her fault she worked for a cheater. “I'm late for class!” She barely registered Brenda's sigh on her way out.
It was short notice, but Mrs. Van Heusen was sure her husband was going to be at a party at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Friday night. She herself was not attending due to a family engagement.
Ashlyn was good at matching her look to the occasion. It was like putting on a costume and playing a role. She pulled out her black cocktail dress and spiky stilettos for tonight's job. Her elegant up-do made her look a little older than her twenty-four years, and she added glittering earrings that looked like real, huge diamond studs. She carefully made up her face with smoky eyes and red lipstick. Satisfied with her appearance, she picked up the evening bag, complete with tiny digital camcorder, and left for the party.
It could be awkward going into these things alone, but it was the only option. Besides, Ashlyn was used to it. As she entered the hotel ballroom, she smiled and picked up a flute of champagne off the tray of a passing waiter. Then when his back was turned, she furtively dribbled most of the champagne into a potted palm. Those two beers the other night had almost done her in. God, she hated beer. It was disgusting skunky stuff.
Her eyes moved over the elegantly-dressed crowd for her mark. The guests were mostly men in expensive dark suits, although some women in cocktail dresses and diamonds—probably real—and exotic perfume mingled with them. Muted piano music tinkled beneath the murmur of many voices. Finally, she spotted Derek Van Heusen in a conversation with two other men, recognizing him from the photos provided by his wife. She smiled and made her way over to him.
She stood with her back to him, moving slowly backward ... one step ... another ... “Oh!” She whirled around at the bump of contact.
"Sorry!” She flashed her most brilliant smile.
"No, I'm sorry. I hope you didn't spill your champagne,” Derek Van Heusen apologized.
"No, no,” she assured him. “I'm fine.” She paused and looked at him. “Aren't you Derek Van Heusen?"
He nodded and smiled, but looked politely inquisitive. “Have we met?"
"Yes, we met a few months ago at a party at Jennifer Holland's,” she said easily. “You were there ... I'm Ashlyn Hartford."
The information had come from his wife, and it slid right off Ashlyn's tongue.
"That's right. I do remember you,” he lied. He moved closer. “You look just as lovely tonight as you did then."
Ashlyn smiled. “Why thank you. What brings you here this evening?"
The small talk started, and Derek introduced her to his two companions. But before she could get him alone, another man approached him. Then, after making apologies, he was led away.
"Perhaps we'll talk again later,” he called as he left—and she held his gaze to let him know she wasn't averse to that.
Ashlyn sighed inwardly. She had nothing to talk to these two gentlemen about, so she stood there smiling as they networked.
Suddenly, someone took hold of her arm from behind her. “Blondie?"
She turned and looked into the melting chocolate eyes of Connor Montgomery, aka Zach.
Ashlyn stared wide-eyed at him, and he laughed.
"I can't believe it!” He grinned at her. “I had no way to track you down after the other night. I went back to Doc McCue's, but the bartender said he'd never seen you before."
Her mouth had fallen open, and she snapped it closed. “Uh ... Zach!” Shit, shit, shit! Now what was she supposed to do? She struggled to maintain a calm façade and took a deep breath.
"Hey, I know you changed your mind about having me back to your place. I don't blame you. A girl has to be careful these days. But you could have at least given me your phone number. I wanted to see you again,” he playfully reproached her.
Ashlyn's mind worked frantically. The champagne glass was slick and icy in her fingers. Okay, Derek was nowhere in sight right now. She could flirt a little with Zach to keep him from getting suspicious, and then make an excuse to leave. Hopefully she could still finagle some time alone with Derek to see if he took the bait.
Zach smiled, his hand still resting lightly on her bare arm. She was acutely aware of the soft warmth of his fingers.
She smiled back at him. “What are you doing here?"
"Business,” he answered. “Schmoozing with some venture capitalists.” He shrugged. “Too bad this is all they have to drink.” He lifted his champagne flute and winked at her. “I could use a beer. Probably you, too.” He grinned.
"Uh ... sure,” she agreed. She tipped the last of her champagne into her mouth, the bubbles burning her tongue and throat.
"What about you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?"
Her eyes lowered. “My parents are friends of the Josephs."
He nodded, seeming to have recognized the name of the party hosts. “Ah. But this doesn't seem like the kind of party a college student would go to."
"Oh, well,” she laughed. “My parents couldn't make it, but they thought someone should put in an appearance."
He smiled with sympathy. “Not my kind of thing either. I'd rather be drinking beer and playing pool. But this party seems a lot better now you're here."
She smiled at him, but her eyes roamed the room.
"Uh ... are you here with someone?"
"Oh, no,” she said. “I came alone."
He relaxed. “Me too. Come on, let's find you another drink.” He lightly took her arm and led her through the crowd. They got to the bar, and he handed her another flute of golden champagne.
"Let's go over there and talk.” He nodded to a small alcove in the room and led her in that direction.
She sipped her drink and smiled up at Zach. Damn, he was gorgeous. That smile! It was so boyish, so sexy. In all the many, many times she had done this, never had she been so attracted to a mark.
His dark blonde hair was cut short, a bit longer on top and tousled attractively. For a blonde guy, he had deeply tanned skin and surprisingly dark eyebrows above intense chocolate eyes. His mouth was beautiful, with well-shaped lips she knew only too well were made for kissing. Just the thought of kissing him made her surge with moisture, made her knees go wobbly.
But the way he looked at her really melted her. Intelligence and humor shone in his eyes, his smile was charming and easy, and all the restrained energy in his big, male body was such a turn-on. She sighed inwardly. Why did such a cute guy have to be a married, cheating rat bastard?
Had his wife confronted him with what she knew? Had she kicked him out? Some women, despite evidence of their husband's infidelity, or potential infidelity, hung on to their marriages. Maybe they tried to work it out, or maybe they were just desperate and in denial, but Ashlyn swore she would never put up with that kind of treatment. She'd seen the hurt and pain cheating caused and wouldn't allow it to happen to her.
why she wasn't looking for any kind of relationship in the near future.
But Zach didn't look like a guy whose marriage had just disintegrated, however happy or unhappy it might have been. He looked genuinely happy to see her, interested ... attracted. Damn.
"You look so different tonight.” His eyes moved warmly over her. “Very sophisticated."
"Thank you,” she replied, and then asked flirtatiously, “Which look do you prefer?"
He grinned and studied her more intently, sending delicious chills over her body. “I have a feeling the other night was closer to the real Ashlyn than this,” he said thoughtfully. “Although you are incredibly gorgeous tonight, I kind of like beer-drinking, pool-playing Ashlyn. But then, that's just me."
She smiled. He was actually right. Although she'd never acquired a taste for beer, hanging out with the guys and playing pool was one of her favorite things to do. It had come in very handy the other night.
"What about your date the other night? Did you find out why she stood you up?” Ashlyn asked.
"No, no! I was waiting for my
. Not a date."
He frowned. “Is that why you took off? Did you think I was seeing someone else?"
He shook his head. “No way. I would
Yeah, right. Scum. Too bad he was sooooo hot. She was getting warm just standing near him.
"So tonight, I'm getting your last name and phone number,” he said, smiling winningly at her.
"Okay,” she agreed. “So how is the beer business going?"
"I've had better weeks,” he admitted. “We're in the middle of trying to finance an expansion so we can increase production. Demand has grown so much we can't keep up with the facility we have. So we've been busy doing research for a business plan to present to the bank, or other investors. And we've had a few internal problems lately. I won't bore you with the details."
"That's okay.” To her own surprise, she was genuinely interested in listening to him talk about his business. “Tell me more."