by Sally Kilpatrick
Rachel Livingston went into the FBI to avoid girdles and pantyhose. Unfortunately, her superiors didn’t seem to understand that concept. She patted her bustier endoskeleton into place making sure all of her wire taps were just as hidden as any errant cellulite. After training at Quantico she didn’t have a lot of fat to hide, but she did have a ton of wires.
She slipped a sheath of black satin over her head and stepped into a pair of stilettos—another thing she had foolishly thought she might be able to leave behind once she joined the Bureau. Wobbling just a little, she reached behind her to zip up her dress, but she couldn’t quite reach all the way.
As she strode to the door, her balance and her confidence improved. She opened the door and stepped into the middle of a hornet’s nest of activity. The chic decorating of the living room portion of the hotel suite was obscured by computers, headphones, wires, telephones, and tons of other gadgets she couldn’t even name.
“Could someone give me a hand here?” She turned around not even waiting to see who her rescuer would be.
“I will!” Two masculine voices answered in unison. She looked over her shoulder to see her partners in fighting crime: Tom and Jack. Tom reached for the zipper, and Jack took a step back—it was only fair considering how their last operation in Aspen had ended.
Tom’s steady hand pulled the zipper to the top slowly but surely.
“Don’t mention it.” His big brown eyes danced, and she had to admit he was a handsome specimen of the boy next door, complete with shirt sleeves rolled up and a tiny dot of mustard just beneath his left shirt pocket.
Jack stood back, ice blue eyes penetrating her as they always did. He divulged no secrets, though. Imagine actually being married to the enigmatic Jack, a man who really knew how to wear a tuxedo.
“Almost ready?” If she didn’t know him better she would have taken those two simple words as a command or at the very least an indictment on how slowly she was getting ready. Months of field training had proven to her that Jack didn’t realize he was brusque. Something deep within made him hold people at arm’s length emotionally. Physically, he had made it very clear she could get just as close as she wanted to get.
“Soloski,” she chided because she knew he wasn’t fond of his actual last name. “I’m getting ready just as quickly as I can. I’d love to see just how fast you could get into a girdle full of hidden wires.”
“Livingston, just finish getting ready.” He walked away but not before throwing a few virtual darts at Tom.
Rachel smiled to herself and turned to finish her make-up and jewelry in her room. It never hurt to be the belle of the ball.
She turned to meet Tom’s eyes. “Yes?”
“You look gorgeous.”
“Thanks, Tom,” she said. Now, see, all a girl wanted was a little recognition of her efforts.
Jack watched the exchange between Tom and Rachel from across the room. He cursed under his breath as Tom said something and Rachel flashed one of her breath-taking smiles at him. Lucky bastard. He got to be truthful first. He got to save the girl. Jack wasn‘t normally a sore loser, but playing the hero was his gig.
Okay, so being truthful wasn’t his most enduring trait; he was an undercover agent, what could you expect? Saving the girl was definitely his area of expertise. He was the one who was supposed to save Rachel from Van Buren, not fall and break his wrist like some sort of pansy.
He looked to the mirror over the table and straightened a black bow tie that didn’t need to be straightened. He could be folksy. He could pour on the charm. He leaned back and attempted debonair.
No, he couldn’t do folksy or charming, and he certainly couldn‘t pull off debonair.
Rachel emerged from her room once again, her hair held up by pins and cascading down her back. Her diamond earrings caught the light and almost blinded him from across the room. It was amazing what a little lipstick did for her. She was beautiful without a single stitch of make-up, but a little red lipstick added enough drama for a Broadway play.
Jack couldn’t help but smile as he dodged equipment to meet her at the door. He offered his arm, and she took it, the slight weight of her arm reassuring. Screw folksy. He got to take the girl with him.
“Have her home by eleven, Jack,” Tom called. His voice was jovial, but Jack knew what he was really thinking.
“Don’t count on it,” he said with a wicked grin to remind his partner who got to take Cinderella to the ball.
Jack handed her into the limo, and Rachel gingerly arranged her dress in order to sit. Jack sat across from her, and she had to admit he still caused her heart to somersault—not that she had any intentions of admitting that to him.
“Okay, Jack. Let’s review…we’re from Memphis originally, where I worked on several charity boards. Your job has moved us here, and I am going to subtly inquire about good domestic help.”
“I hear it’s hard to find these days,” he said dryly as he looked out the window.
“Get serious, Jack. Then again, what is your role in all this?”
“I’m going to casually ask around about maids myself, but I’m supposedly looking for a few benefits on the side.” He winked at Rachel.
She rolled her eyes. “Great, I haven’t even been married for twenty-four hours, and you’re already looking for a mistress?”
“Correction—we’ve been married for seven years, and I’m looking for a cheap mistress who doesn’t speak English and who won’t run to the cops because she’s illegal and I’ll have her passport.”
Rachel exhaled sharply. A white slavery ring was a far cry from money laundering. She had read all the reports. Women—and sometimes men—being lured illegally to the country then forced to work as modern slaves. Some were domestic servants, and some were worse. She shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her bare arms at the thought of some of the files she had read. Some of the victims were little more than children forced to work in brothels.
“You can’t think too much about it, Livingston.”
Her eyes darted to his. His blue eyes held compassion for her, his twitching jaw suggested painful past experience. His firm mouth just begged to be kissed.
“Eleven-year-olds being sold into prostitution, Jack,” she said. “And we won’t be able to save them with what we’re doing here in Atlanta.”
Jack leaned forward, putting a warm hand on her knee. “Rachel, you can’t think about what you can’t do; you have to think about what you can. I can almost guarantee you that getting to the bottom of this white slavery ring will help those little children just as much as the men and women who are held as slaves in mansions. It all connects; it always does.”
He took his hand away and leaned back to look out the window. Rachel could only hope he was right. This was her first official assignment so she would just have to trust him.
The limo pulled up to a wrought-iron gate set some distance from the largest house Rachel had ever seen. She knew she was in a ritzy part of town, but she hadn’t expected to ever see a house this big—it was almost as big as the hotel where she and Jack had stayed in Aspen.
She envied Jack’s ability to be perfectly relaxed. He appeared so nonchalant. Had he grown up among the country’s elite? Had he lived in a house like this? She cocked her head to one side, studying him as he studied the landscape.
No, he hadn’t come from wealth, but he had learned to blend in early on. Had another relative been wealthy or had he pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps? She was inclined to believe the latter.
“Figured out the mysteries of the universe?” he asked without even looking at her. Rachel’s cheeks burned at being caught spying and speculating. “Not yet.”
His eyes locked with hers. “Well, you’ll have to unravel the mystery of Jack another time, because we’re here. Fashionably late, of course.”
She took his hand, letting him lead her out of the car and up the stairs. His hand shifted to her elbow as a short, stocky butler (Peruvian, perhaps?) opened the front door to a black and white marble tile foyer. To the right lay a doorway to a parquet-floored ballroom. Jack guided her just to the side of the doorway, and Rachel wondered if he needed a moment to catch his breath, too. The room was full of women in designer ball gowns, swishing around the floor to the light strains of mellow big band music.
She should have expected no less from the String of Pearls Charity Gala. She turned to see if Jack had stars in his eyes, but, no, his eyes were fixed firmly on her. He drew her hand to his mouth, his lips lightly brushing the skin there. The warmth tingled its way up her arm and down her spine.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked before she could decide if his elegant gesture was for her benefit or that of their audience.
“That would be great,” she said.
He arched an eyebrow to ask her what she would like.
“Surprise me,” she said with a smile as if he hadn’t already.
Jack swore at himself as he approached a waiter carrying a tray of champagne flutes. What was he thinking kissing her hand like some kind of deranged fool? Who did that anymore? He would just shrug it off if she asked, pretend he wanted everyone to think they were in love.
In truth, he hadn’t been able to stop himself. Her eyes glowed at the sight of the majestic ballroom. Her cheeks pinkened just as they had each time they had taken dance lessons in order to learn how to fit in with the upper echelon. He wasn’t ready to take her in his arms and whirl with her around the floor. He wasn’t ready to be that close, to pretend to be her husband, only to take her home to Tom.
He realized he was frowning and quickly changed his expression to reflect a slight smile, the smirk of a man who was rich and used to getting what he wanted. He weaved his way through the crowd, his eyes trained on the beauty in black standing at the outskirts of the dance floor.
That’s when he saw Frank Watson, III chatting up the supposed Rachel Willoughby. He stopped dead in his tracks. The leader of the biggest white slavery ring in Atlanta was flirting with Rachel. An invisible fist clenched Jack’s heart. The logical part of him applauded at how easily Rachel was making contact with the man they needed to put out of business. The irrational part of him wanted to rip Frank Watson limb for limb for even thinking about coming near Rachel.
Frank Watson whirled Rachel onto the dance floor, and he immediately regretted not asking her to dance first thing. He wanted to stalk out into the dancers and punch Frank Watson before cutting in, but he tamped down his irrational self and scanned the floor for a tall, leggy blonde: Mrs. Frank Watson, III.
Two could play this game.
Wasn’t that fun? Stay tuned for Chapter Two tomorrow Tuesday, September 7.
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