evie ever after chameleon chronicles
Two out of three ain’t bad…
Unless you’re talking about dead guys!
The body count on this job is freaking me out. Since I signed on to bust scam artists with Chameleon, the missions have been getting increasingly dangerous–and so has my love life! There’s Arch, my bad-boy Scottish lover, who’s been keeping secrets so long, he may never come clean. Then there’s my sexy boss, Milo, who’s in hot water with some seriously bad characters.
Maybe it’s time for a whole new gig–one without cons or criminals. But first, I have to bring in one more bad apple… in my own inimitable style. After that, one of my guys had better step up to the plate, or it’s hasta la vista for Evie…
chameleon chronicles / book 3
hqn books, march 1, 2009
what people are saying
Private Jet Charter
Somewhere over Indiana
When I was a kid I fantasized about being a kick-butt crime fighter. You know, like Emma Peel of The Avengers or Agent 99 of Get Smart. Later, like most teenaged girls growing up in the seventies, I wanted to be one of Charlie’s Angels. Specifically, Jill Monroe, but only because I wanted Farrah’s hair.
Several decades and a career in the performance arts later, I’m still pining for the perfect hairstyle. The kick-butt crime-fighter fantasy, however, recently became reality. No one (except maybe my ex-husband) was more surprised than me. In this episode of my life gone wild, I’m winging through the friendly skies, escaping the scene of an anti-crime.
My name is Evie Parish and I’m the newest member of Chameleon—a specialized branch of the AIA—which is something like the CIA only smaller and sneakier. Comprised of ex-grifters, former bunko cops, and now me, Chameleon creates illusions to expose despicable frauds. I used to sing, dance and act on the stages of the Atlantic City casinos. Now the world is my stage and my idea of applause is the sound of a cell door slamming shut on the amoral keister of a scam-artist. No, I don’t have a background in law enforcement (or a criminal record), but my acting and sleight-of-hand skills (compliments of a stint as a magician’s assistant) along with my scary-good memory make me perfect for this job.
Unfortunately, not everyone on the team agrees. Especially the man I’m sitting next to, the object of a fantasy fling come true, Arch ‘Ace’ Duvall, a hunky bad boy with a Scottish accent and a soft spot for good girl me. Call me crazy in love. Although Arch has yet to say the words, he did carve the sentiment in a tree: Arch loves Evie.
Yeah. I know. How sweet is that? And totally unexpected given his personal code. Let’s just say he’s never been in a committed relationship. Ever. Not that we’ve committed to anything other than ‘trying to make this thing work.’
Where was I?
Ah, yes. My new reality. An adrenaline charged cross between Oceans Eleven and The Thomas Crowne Affair sprinkled with the misadventures of a modern-day Doris Day. I kid you not.
A reformed con-artist, Arch is one of two alpha dogs at Chameleon. The other being Special Agent Milo Beckett—known to the team as ‘Jazzman’. Beckett—also sexy, but in a quiet, straight arrow way—hired me without consulting Arch. He also kissed me—without consulting Arch—which resulted in fireworks, only not the good kind. I’m one of those people who can’t jaywalk without getting busted, so naturally Arch walked in on the spontaneous lip lock. I was mortified. Arch was pissed. And Beckett was no help whatsoever. But that’s neither here nor there. Well, it’s somewhere, just not a place I want to visit right now. I have enough worries, thank you very much.
I tried to put them out of my mind. Closed my eyes and willed the drone of the jet engine to lull me to sleep. It was nearly midnight. Hopped up on adrenaline all day and night, my body was exhausted, but my brain kept spinning scenarios worthy of a David Mamet film. Anxious, I fussed with my seat buckle and prayed for a smooth ride. My stomach was already churning. “Leaving a team member behind feels wrong,” I blurted.
“Dinnae borrow trouble, Sunshine.”
“It’s just that—”
“Jazzman’s more than qualified to manipulate a small-time chiseler like Frank Turner. Dinnae let his moniker snow you, yeah?”
Moniker. Grifter-speak for nickname. Turner’s was ‘Mad Dog.’
“Okay, but . . . ” I have a bad feeling. Normally, Arch and Beckett manipulated bad sorts in tandem. I couldn’t help feeling that if it weren’t for me he would’ve stuck close to his partner. Maybe not as an active participant, but at least for backup. Though not intentionally, I’d driven a wedge between the two men. All because of that stupid kiss. Oh, and the time I confided in Beckett instead of Arch.
I suppose most women would die to have two sexy men, two crime fighters, no less, vying for their attention. As fantasies go, it’s a humdinger. In reality it’s. . . unsettling. Even though they both denied it, I was certain, at heart, Arch and Beckett were friends. What if Beckett’s plan curdled? What if he got hurt . . . or worse? How would Arch live with that? How would I live with that?
“Dinnae let that imagination of yours run wild,” Arch said. He grasped my hand to still my nervous scratching.
“Let it go and trust Jazzman’s judgment. He ordered us to fly oot. He had his reasons.”
I just hoped they didn’t have anything to do with me. “You’re right,” I said, faking an optimistic smile. “I’m just stunned that our part of the sting went so smoothly.”
“I’m not.” The green-eyed rebel flashed a cocky smile while stroking my cheek.
My insides fluttered with something other than anxiety. Call me smitten. Along with countless other women.
I’ve heard the sighs. Witnessed the moony-eyed gawking. Heck, I’ve sighed and gawked myself. Arch is drop dead gorgeous and deadly charming to boot. Talk about a dangerous combo. He’s also six years younger than my forty-one. Not that that’s an issue. Okay. That’s a lie. I’m a little self-conscious in my older woman shoes. Arch—bless his warped soul—insists age isn’t an issue. Then again, he excels at telling people what they want to hear.
“Jazzman’s more than qualified to manipulate a small-time chiseler like Frank Turner.”
My bad feeling escalated into imminent disaster. My pulse escalated too. It didn’t help that one of my two best friends, Jayne, had called me this morning in a tizzy over her psychic’s warning after consulting a crystal ball. “Mixing business with pleasure today is dangerous. Your friend must turn off the heat or someone will get burned.” Nic, my other best bud would snort, citing crystal balls as mystical bullshit. I prefer the term hooey, and normally I’d agree, but lately I confess I’m paranoid when it comes to this new life that seems too good to be true.
Arch asked the lone flight attendant for a bottle of champagne. Lydia, a twenty-something redhead with a knock-out body and celebrity perfect teeth, rushed to comply. Instead of watching her fawn over her sole passenger—me being invisible in her Scot-struck eyes—I excused myself to use the private jet’s lavatory.
“You all right, lass?” Arch asked.
I moved down the narrow aisle before my heated cheeks gave me away. I didn’t want to admit that I was feeling insecure in our new relationship. I didn’t want to vocalize my lingering worries about Milo Beckett, prompting Arch to misinterpret my concern for his partner, my boss. I didn’t want him to know I was freaking out about the recent web of lies we’d spun in order to avenge a U.S. Senator. I didn’t want him to doubt my nerve. He already questioned my virtuous nature.
Where was I?
Ah, yes. Lies.
A product of my uptight mid-western upbringing, I’m uncomfortable with purposeful deceit. A detriment in my new line of work. A liability Arch keeps pointing out. Although he believes I possess the motivation and talent, he’s convinced I’m hindered by my goody-two-shoe morals.
I’m determined to prove otherwise.
Hence locking myself in the private jet’s lavatory for a private meltdown.
It’s not like I could discuss my concerns with Arch. A: It would only support his theory that I’m not cut out for his line of work. B: Born into a family of grifters, Arch’s concept of right and wrong is blurred.
For the last several days I’ve been ignoring or suppressing serious issues that are destined to explode in my face. This moment I was obsessing on the smoke and mirrors mission that had involved blowing a lot of smoke up a lot of butts, some belonging to my own family and friends. Even though I’d played loose with the truth for the greater good, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would end bad.
“There are all kinds of lies,” I could hear Arch say.
I gripped the rim of the stainless steel sink, stared into the mirror, and, instead of bemoaning my darkening roots (hey, I never professed to being a natural blond), I concentrated on obliterating my guilt. “Everyone lies.”
A global truth according to the research book I’m reading on scams and frauds. Turns out most of us lie daily albeit unconsciously. White lies. Etiquette lies. Lies of omission. Falsehoods intended to spare someone’s feelings or to perpetuate goodwill. Like the friend who assures you your botched perm doesn’t make you look like a deranged poodle. Or the parent who nurtures a child’s belief in Santa Claus.
Then there are lies with selfish, yet relative harmless intent. Politicians lie to win elections. Publicists lie to catapult an unknown artist to stardom. A form of manipulation we typically take for granted. Of course they’re going to spin the truth, that’s what they do.
But no one spins the truth like a con-artist. Masters of persuasion and deception, con-artists—aka confidence men, grifters, flimflammers, bunko artists, hustlers—excel in telling you what you want to hear. They target character traits ranging from arrogant to insecure, needy to greedy, ambitious to lazy, and pitch the irresistible deal. No social class is immune and the mark’s intelligence is rarely a factor.
I should know. Last month I fell for a street hustle and I’m a smart cookie. Just gullible and naïve, according to Arch. Then two weeks ago my mom, a mega-smart, super-grounded realist, fell prey to a Sweetheart Scam. Not that she knows, thanks to Chameleon. Point is, a good scam-artist homes in on your needs and weaknesses and—bam—a sucker is born.
Where was I?
Ah, yes. Avenging and protecting U.S. Senator Clark. Once we’d determined how Frank ‘Mad Dog’ Turner had cheated the senator’s wife at cards, cheating the cheat had been cake. Mad Dog never knew what bit him and before he had a chance to wise up, the entire team, with the exception of Beckett—got the hell out of Dodge. Or in this case, Hammond, Indiana.
Tabasco, Gina, and Woody were en-route to Atlantic City via Tabasco’s single engine Cessna. While Arch and I, still masquerading as the Baron of Broxley and his fiancée, enjoyed the luxury of a private jet. Roomy accommodations, plush leather seats, expensive champagne and an uber-sexy traveling companion. Who could ask for more?
Too bad I was battling a panic attack.
Someone knocked on the door. “Miss Parish, is everything all right?”
“I’m fine.” Liar. My cheeks burned and my heart raced. Since I was alone, I scratched.
“In that case, would you please return to your seat? The pilot warned we’re approaching heavy turbulence.”
I slapped a palm to my clammy forehead. So now in addition to battling an anxiety attack, I had to endure motion sickness? I blinked at the door, felt a twinge in my jaw, and realized I was clenching my teeth. Oh, no. Though I hadn’t had an episode in weeks, I still suffered from TMJ—a stress-related disorder. What if my jaw locked? It had happened before. Talk about embarrassing. Almost as mortifying as puking into an airsick bag.
Instead of exiting the lavatory, I sank down on the toilet. “Be out in a minute,” I squeaked then dropped my head between my knees. Breathe.
Thirty seconds later, another knock. “Open the door, love.”
“Cannae or willnae?”
Both. My voice stuck in my throat as my imagination took flight.
What if Mad Dog goes rabid and attacks Beckett? Just because he’s a two-bit cheat that doesn’t mean he won’t freak out and fight back when a fed tries to run him out of town.
What if my family refuses to forgive me for convincing them I’m ‘engaged’ to a wealthy baron, even though I deceived them for the greater good?
What if Arch fails to win my trust as he promised?
What if I fail him by putting my faith in the safer man—Beckett?
A millisecond later, the handle clicked and the metal door swung open. Another of Arch’s talents: picking locks.
Hunched over, I glanced up. I wanted to blast him for invading my privacy, instead I wheezed.
“Bloody hell, Sunshine.” He shut the door and stooped in front of me.
Hot-faced and short of breath, I stated the obvious. “Anxiety attack.”
“I can see that.”
He’d seen it before. During our first mission when he’d dashed my assumption that he was a Bond-like super spy by confessing his true profession. “I’m a con-artist, Evie.” Yeah, boy, that was a shock. He left out the part about him working for the good guys. I learned that important tidbit later from Beckett.
He stroked a hand down my back. “Talk it oot.”
I shook my head, palmed my jaw.
“Did it lock?”
“Not yet,” I said through clenched teeth.
He nudged aside my hand and massaged both sides of my face. “You’re internalizing. Let it oot and the symptoms will subside.”
Spoken like my dentist. Still, I refrained from speaking my mind. Instead, I yearned for my journal. Knowing I keep my feelings bottled, my dad had gifted me with my first diary when I was a kid. “For when your heart and mind are jammed.”
Only my journal was in my tote bag and Arch was relentless. “You’re worried aboot Beckett.”
“I’m worried about a lot of things.” So much for the private meltdown.
Someone, Lydia, knocked again. “Excuse me, but . . .”
“Hold those thoughts.” Arch kissed my forehead then rose and cracked the door to speak with the persistent flight attendant.
I massaged the ache in my chest with one hand, my jaw with the other. No problem on the thought holding. I’m an expert at internalizing. At least I used to be. Since my infamous ‘snap’ at a not-so-long-ago audition, I’d been acting out and speaking out in ways I’d only dreamed of.
“What did you say to her?” I wheezed when Arch turned back to me.
“Something to make her go away.”
He grinned and my breath stalled. Not because of the anxiety attack, but because he was so freaking gorgeous. When describing him to Nic and Jayne, I’d compared him to Gerard Butler, the Scottish actor who’d rocked our socks in a couple of action films and melted our bones as a romantic lead. We always compared people to celebrities. We’re entertainers. Go with what you know.
Lately though, when I looked at Arch I only saw Archibald Robert Duvall. (Yes, that’s his real name.) Aka ‘Ace’ (his moniker), aka the Baron of Broxley (His title. Bought, not inherited. Nevertheless legit.). Hunky body, dark, cropped hair, hypnotic grey-green eyes and a knee-buckling smile. Did I mention the Celtic tattoo banded around his sculpted bicep? Yowza. And his warrior-like goatee? Swoon. Not for the first time I wondered what this charismatic rebel saw in Ivory-soap me. Not for the first time, I questioned our longevity.
And immediately dropped my head back between my knees.
Arch gently pulled me to my feet and into his arms. “Tell me your biggest worry.”
The jet bounced and jerked as we hit the aforementioned turbulence. Going down in flames? “I understand that Chameleon is covert,” I rasped, opening my mouth as little as possible, “but I don’t want to keep my new life, my real job, from Nic and Jayne. I wouldn’t be able to face them.”
“The reason Chameleon is so effective is because we operate under the radar, you know? Can you trust them to keep our presence and purpose under wraps?”
“Then tell them.”
“But what if one of them slips? What if I slip? What if—” The plane bounced and I gasped. Jaw aching, stomach spinning, I closed my eyes and imagined my happy place.
London. With Arch.
Scotland. With Arch.
Anywhere, my foggy brain whispered, with Arch.
“What you need,” he said, sliding his hand up my thigh and under my dress, “is a distraction.”
My brain cells sparked and overheated. My body, including my jaw, melted as his mouth and hands, well, distracted. This was our thing. This getting it on in the weirdest places and wildest positions. Did I mention he was a fantasy come to life?
He kissed my neck and tugged at my panties. “Ever hear of the Mile High Club?”
He continued to kiss and stroke. But of course he would.
And of course, I let him.
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