Authors: Beth Ciotta
“As a professional, I take my job seriously. I know this is an improvisational gig, but a certain amount of rehearsal seems wise. After all, we've been doing it, getting it on, Sugar and Charles that is, for a month. If you want people to believe we're in lustâum, loveâwe should look like we've been around. Each other, that is. Intimately.”
He scraped his teeth over his lower lip. Nice teeth. Nice mouth. “Appreciate your dedication, Sunshine.”
I couldn't tell if he was serious or sarcastic, and right now I didn't care. I wanted him to kiss me, dammit. I wanted something in this miserable day to go right. Was that so wrong?
“Let's just get it out of the way,” I plowed on. “The awkwardnessâmisaligned mouths, bumping noses and all that.”
Except there was no awkwardness. He swooped in without warning, framed my face, ravished my mouth. He kissed the ever-lovin' daylights out of me.
His beard scratched and ignited my skin. Rough. Hot.
His tongueâ¦Oh sweet, Lord, my panties were damp and all he was doing was
It seemed like forever. It seemed like a blip. Next thing I knew, he was standing six inches back, draining the last of his beer.
I fought a dizzy spell and resisted the urge to glance down to see if JT had roared to life. I was, after all, a professional. Those superior acting skills kept my knees and voice from quaking. “I guess we're good then.” We were better than good. We were Bogie and Bacall, sizzling hot!
“Right.” Arch tugged on a ball cap and denim jacket, snatched a cigarette from the pack on the desk and announced he needed a smoke. “
open the door for anyone. I have a key, yeah?”
I watched as he left and shut the door behind him.
Yeah. That went well.
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, as the song goes, I weaved across the room, drunk on the headiness of that kiss. Hands trembling, I rooted through Big Red for my most current diary, a girlie-pink-and-white journal entitled
Secrets of a Diva
. Knowing I tended to bottle up my feelings, my dad had bought me my first diary when I was ten, telling me when my brain and heart were all jammed up, I should pour my thoughts onto the pages. My brain and heart were definitely jammed. Today had been a total freak-fest. And that
I unlocked the diary using the key I kept hidden in my wallet then grabbed my purple pen. The familiarity of the process provided me with a small dose of comfort. At this point, I'd take what I could get.
Dear Diary, Why are men such asses?
Atlantic City, New Jersey
The Chameleon Club
at the living room window of his second-floor apartment, hands braced on the scarred sash. Jaw set, he stared out at the Atlantic Ocean. Not that he could see it. He'd invest in a bottle of glass cleaner, but it would ruin the desired effect. His apartment was directly above his place of businessâThe Chameleon Club.
Seedy was the objective. He didn't want the Inlet Tavern to attract a large clientele. The club was a front. The government operative's goal was to blend in.
Like a chameleon.
Milo was good at fooling the masses. He'd learned from the best. His mentor, his nemesis, his partner in crime. Right now he was pissed as hell at the man.
Ocean gazing usually lowered his blood pressure, but he couldn't see the damned ocean. A grainy film of sand and dirt streaked the outer pane, compliments of a nor'easter. The quarter moon skulked behind ominous clouds. An occasional flash of lightning illuminated choppy seas and the driving rain battering the Inlet's boardwalk. One working streetlamp flickered on and off. Mostly off. The scene was dark and dangerous.
Like Milo's mood.
Downstairs, a cheap audio system dished jazz classics, his music of choice. Jazz soothed his soul and kept the twentysomething customers at bay. John Coltrane's version of “My Favorite Things” floated up through the heating ducts along with patron chatter. A couple of local seniors nursed drinks and swapped stories with Samuel Vine, The Chameleon Club's primary bartender, the man who ran the tavern when Milo was in the field. Pushing seventy, the dark-skinned ex-boxer was still formidable, but also dependable as the rising sun. Honesty in Milo's line of work was as rare as a thirty-year-old virgin. He'd learned long ago not to trust anyone.
Especially Arch Duvall.
He smelled more than heard Woody, the newest member of the unconventional dream team, enter the room through the secret stairwell. Dumped by his girlfriend, the twenty-five-year-old techno-geek had been trying to win her back for weeks. New haircut, new clothes. This week: new cologne.
It reeked. Aside from flies, all he'd attract with that flowery stench were curious looks.
Milo didn't figure it was worth mentioning since they weren't on a case. Woody, nicknamed The Kid, was a sensitive bastard. He was also brilliant. He'd been holed up in the basement for the past few hours doing what he did bestâcracking and tracking.
“Did you find him?” Milo asked without turning.
“How'd you know it was me and not Vine?”
Woody snorted. “You saw my reflection in the window, right?”
Milo couldn't see shit in that window. “You got me.” Another thing he'd learned from Arch. The art of lying. He turned, folded his arms over his chest. “So?”
“It wasn't easy, sir.”
“Milo,” he prompted, although it was wasted breath. Woody had been on the team for three months. He'd yet to drop formalities where his boss was concerned. Respect had been ingrained in the Midwestern boy by the grandparents who'd raised him. He twanged
made Milo's balls twitch. Aside from making him feel old, it reminded him of the bureaucratic bullshit that had resulted in him overstepping and his wife stepping out.
The only time anyone referred to him as
was when he was at HQ, which, to their mutual relief, wasn't often. He'd earned a reputation as a hot dog. If he weren't so tight with the director, he'd be out on his forty-seven-year-old ass. As far as his team was concerned, the A.I.A.âArtful Intelligence Agencyâoperated on a “the-less-we-know-the-better” policy. He had a directive. Results, within blurred reason, were all that mattered.
Like the ones tucked away in Woody's eccentric mind. Milo angled his head. “Where is he?”
“Fort Lauderdale. Traveled under the name of Charles Dupont.”
Arch was a pro at operating under the radar. Woody was good, but he shouldn't have been able to track him this fast. Arch must have slipped.
Something was wrong.
“Tomorrow he's sailing for San Juan on an adults-only cruise. The Fiesta line focuses on romance in the golden years. Caters mostly to second honeymooners, couples celebrating anniversaries. Kind of a geriatric
The Benson file.
“Son of a bitch.” Milo strode to the hall closet, yanked a suitcase from the shelf.
The flowery stench followed him into his bedroom. “Do you think he's up to his old tricks, sir?”
“I think he's taking an unauthorized vacation.” Read: Defying team policy by acting solo. Worse, acting outside of A.I.A. jurisdiction. Chameleon's license-to-shill wasn't valid on foreign soil. They had domestic leeway, not international carte blanche.
And Arch knew it.
Milo crammed the case full of casual and formal wear, processing details. Vine and Woody could handle the bar. He'd have to keep A.I.A in the dark in order to keep Arch's ass, and his own, out of a sling.
Woody scratched at his sparse goatee, also new. “Guess you're going after him.” For a smart kid, he often stated the obvious.
“I need you to make travel arrangements.” This was the second time in eight months Arch had gone renegade. Milo's patience was spent.
He glanced up.
The shaggy-haired boy, who presently resembled a modern-day beatnik, shrugged. “Figured it was the next logical move given your mood when you ordered me to track Ace.”
Aka Arch. Grifters referred to their underworld aliases as
Thanks to Arch, every team member had one. Even Milo. Woody referred to everyone on the team by their monikers, except for Milo. Nope. Milo was
Ignoring his twitching balls, he clasped shut his case, pulled on a leather jacket and silently cursed Arch “Ace” Duvall. “I don't know why I bother,” he muttered.
“Because it's what friends do.”
He let that pass. His relationship with Arch was complicated. No one, aside from Milo and Arch, knew the particulars. He intended to keep it that way.
Woody handed him a stuffed envelope. “I made arrangements for two. It's a couples' cruise.”
Woody hadn't been on the team for long but he knew Arch's history. Knew he was up to something and that he'd just reeled in his
. Whether he wanted in or not, Milo was now part of Arch's game. He'd stick out like a sore thumb if he showed up single for a couples' cruise.
“I called Hot Legs. She's packing. You can pick her up on the way to A.C. International.”
Gina Valente, aka Hot Legs, was an ex-cop with a gift for grifting. A valuable asset, she often ensnared marks via her feminine wiles. He wasn't keen on dragging her into this mess, but now, thanks to Arch, this was Chameleon business. “You're two steps ahead of me, Kid.”
“Three.” He gestured to the envelope.
Milo thumbed through the contents. Travel documents. Passports. Character profilesâ¦Aw, hell. “Why this guy?”
“You've played him before. You're already prepped. We've got the wardrobe in stock and we're on a tight schedule. He's middle-aged, but he's rich.”
“He gets on Ace's nerves, that's for sure.”
Milo cracked his first smile of the day. He shrugged out of the leather jacket, opened the suitcase to swap out the wardrobe.
Woody hovered nearby, rubbing the back of his neckâhis nervous tell.
“There's something else, sir.”
“Spit it out.”
“Ace enlisted an unsanctioned player.”
FTER AN HOUR
of scribbling in my diary, rehashing a day of rash actions, and checking in with Nicole via a brief phone call, I'd fallen into a fitful sleep. Most people have nightmares about showing up at an important event in their underwear. I showed up topless.
I'd have to ask Jayne, a new age enthusiast, to look up the interpretation of breasts in one of her dream books. Or not. Maybe I didn't want to know. Maybe it symbolized a need for my motherâplease save me from the big, bad world. Only the last person I'd run to is my I-told-you-so mom who
me to go to college.
You could've been a teacher,
I could hear her saying.
Instead you're a gorilla
. Or maybe the topless bit simply meant that I was destined to lose my shirt.
I blinked up at the ceiling, thought about the days to come and how I'd be spending them with Arch. Surprisingly, the hurricane of loneliness that generally ruined my mornings weakened to a Category One. Last night's kiss lingered and sparked under my skin like a summer lightning storm. The man was not only dangerous, but potent.
I kicked off the sheets, scooted to the edge of the bed and scanned the darkened room.
He was also missing.
My heart raced with familiar pangs of desertion.
He found you lacking. He's gone.
My jaw throbbed. Falling asleep without my splintâthe retainerlike appliance provided by my TMJ specialistâhadn't been smart. Stressful dreams on top of a stressful day make Evie a prime candidate for lockjaw.
I massaged my chest with one hand, my jaw with the other. I told myself to chill.
You've survived a year without Michael. You don't need a man. You don't need Arch.
I marched over to the window and wrenched open the curtains. Florida sunshine flooded the room. Craving a glass of orange juice, I palmed the warm plate glass and squinted at the blue skies, palm trees and hedges bursting with pink and white flowers.
I thought about Disney World. Maybe I could relocate and get a job there. Maybe I could snag a gig as Goofy or Minnie Mouseâfull-body costume. Better than a gorilla suit. At least I'd be hawking fairy tales instead of cars.
Sighing, I turned away from the tropical scenery, my spirits lifting when I realized Arch hadn't vamoosed. His suitcase yawned open, propped up on one of those metal luggage stands. His laptop sat on the desk. A cushioned chair overflowed with rumpled blankets and a pillow, the only proof he'd even returned last night. Add scary-quiet to his bag of tricks.
Since the bathroom door was closed, I assumed Houdini was in there peeing or preening. Maybe he was taking a shower. Maybe I should join him. Yeah, boy, wouldn't
be fun? Except I was too chicken to risk rejection. He hadn't seemed impressed with my kissing skills, certainly not enough to join me in bed. I couldn't imagine he'd welcome me in his shower. Last night I'd endured several hours of dreamed humiliation. I had no interest in making them come true, thank you very much.
My gaze skipped back to the chair heaped with bed linens.
Okay. So my stage husband had opted to stretch out in a chair or on the floor rather than next to me. Disappointing, but not devastating. At least he hadn't split. At least I wasn't a total failure, losing husband number two after day number one.
Nicole grumbled in my imagination.
I say he slept on the floor because you gave him a hard-on and he couldn't whack off lying next to you. Well, he could butâ
He didn't sleep with you because he wants to get down and dirty, and he can't because he assured you this is business. At least he's honorable.
It was a confidence-boosting fantasy and I intended to revel in it like a day at the spa.
The bathroom door creaked open. My pulse accelerated, then stalled. I looked like I'd just rolled out of bed. Which I had. Not the point. The point was cartoon loungewear, bed-head and morning breath.
I fished a mint out of my purse just as Arch stepped into the room, only it wasn't Arch but Charles. Either he'd risen predawn or he was a quick-change artist of extraordinary skill. My knowledge of the application of prosthetics was nil, however, I'd read in some celebrity rag that it was a long and tedious process. Of course, that had involved transforming a mortal man into a beastly alien. Arch had merely accelerated the aging process.
I blinked at his wrinkles and beer gut, those absurd glasses, and marveled at my lustful reaction. Not a sign of Mr. Manly Man and my engine still revved. I even got a sexual charge out of the scent of Old Spice. Did I ever have it this bad for Michael? I mean, I am-was-am physically attracted to my ex, but I don't remember my body buzzing and humming and my mind blanking as it was now. I knew I should say something but couldn't think of anything other than,
Take me. Take me now.
“Good morning,” he said.
would have been the icebreaker. “Good morning.” I tugged at the hem of my T-shirt, feeling self-conscious about my appearance. Not that he'd actually looked at me yet.
I crossed my arms over my braless chest and watched as he tucked an artfully knotted red scarf into the mouth of his starched white shirt. Amazing that a man these days even knew
to tie an ascot knot. The dated image reminded me of old Hollywood, royal races and Thurston Howell the Third.
Suddenly, I didn't feel quite as silly. I even managed a smile. “Sleep well?”
He nodded. “You?”
“Like a baby.” Okay. That was a lie. But I wasn't about to admit I'd tossed and turned when he'd copped forty winks. Unless he was lying, too. Call me hopeful.
I smoothed my hand over my tangled hair, took in his crisp white oxford shirt and creased navy trousers. Talk about conservative. But it somehow worked with his silver hair and those kooky glasses. He really looked like the camera-shy author.
I looked like a delusional fan from a cartoon convention.
Turning away, I rooted through Big Red for a change of clothes. I waited for Arch to bring up that atomic kiss, but he didn't.
Guys avoid mushy talk,
said the spirit of Jayne, to which Nicole added,
Like he's going to admit the earth moved.
Right. Thanks, girls. I looked over my shoulder to ask him a question and caught him staring. At
Even though he wore an enigmatic expression, the air crackled like the Fourth of July.
Jolted, I cleared my throat and almost choked on my breath mint.
. “Are youâ¦” I flitted a hand toward the bathroom, trying not to hack and cough.
“I'll be out in a few minutes.”
“I'll order room service.”
We'd spoken those same lines last night. It smacked of an unsettling connection that had me race walking toward the bathroom. Snap, crackle,
How is it possible he didn't feel that sizzle? He seemed so calm, so unaffected.
I shut the door between us, wanting to die. Then I heard a muffled “Bollocks,” and decided this day might be worth living after all.
DRESSED TO KILL
because it was my first official day on the job and first impressions are vital.
And, okay, I wanted to make Arch suffer.
After catching him watching me and hearing that curse, I was pretty certain I'd stirred up
with my tongue. I'm not exactly inexperienced in the kissing department. Damn him for making me doubt my sensuality, even if only for a few restless hours. As if Michael hadn't done enough damage.
But I digress.
My job, as described by Arch, was to be the life of the party, to dupe some bad sort into believing that I'm a free-spirited, head-over-heels-in-love newlywed. For the greater good, he'd said. For art, I added on my own, because I wanted to show the world that a convincing performance comes from within. Honed skills over physical perfection. Age is moot.
With each stroke of the makeup brush, I thought more about Sugar and less about Arch. Her background and dreams. Specific character traitsâsocially outgoing, expressive, a desire to be admired. We had a lot in commonâupbeat and imaginative, flying through life by the seat of our pants. Those aspects of Sugar's personality would come to me naturally. The klutz factor would require effort, although I could count on the stilettos to keep me off balance. Flaunting my body wouldn't be too much of a trial since it wasn't my body, but Sugar's. A character's clothes, or lack of, provided superficial motivation.
The true challenge lay in adopting her excessive-talking, heart-on-her-sleeve mentality. I'd have to battle my suppressed Midwestern upbringing in order to gab about anything and everything that came to mind, especially personal fears and desires. Unlike Sugar, I internalize. I'm not one for unleashing my inner demons. Giving those casino execs hell had been totally out of character.
I thought back on yesterdayâpost-booby-baring, pre-contemplating-the-consequences. For a brief moment, I'd felt empowered and free. Sugar, I decided as I supersized my breasts to 34Cs via the “extreme cleavage” bra, felt empowered and free around the clock.
Must be nice.
Then again, being in character allowed me to act out of character. Bonus. I could do with a little acting out.
I crammed my feet into strappy stilettos and squeezed my curves into a skintight, low-cut, purple-flowered sundress because Sugar felt better dolled up.
And because I wanted to make Arch suffer.
Glamour makeupâcheck. Sex kitten hairâcheck. Lots of skinâ¦well, way more than I generally showedâcheck.
“Brilliant,” was all he said when I emerged from the bathroom an hour later in my Doris Day meets Pamela Anderson splendor. A man of few words this morning, but at least the words were positive. Whether he meant them personally or professionally, I didn't know and didn't care. A glimmer of his flirty nature returned as we reviewed our profiles over the breakfast he'd ordered in. Arch-Charles in flirty mode was more fortifying than a bowl of Wheaties.
It wasn't until we'd loaded into the cab and were on our way to the cruise port that my
became chatty. “My wife's first cruise,” he said to Ramon the cabbie, an apologetic explanation for my enthusiastic rambling.
Though I gabbed with a Brooklyn accent, used exaggerated hand gestures and occasionally giggled, the bubbling nervous energy was every bit mine as it was Sugar's. I'd never been to Florida, never been on a cruise. I'd never performed in a two-person show, an entire ship as my stage. Considering the escalating traffic as we neared the cruise port, my audienceâpassengers and crewâwould number in the thousands.
My neck tingled with the promise of a rash. My jaw throbbed. What if I bombed? What if someone saw through my ruse and pegged me as a fake?
You're not Sugar Dupont, the sexy, vibrant, wife of a wealthy author. You're that over-forty divorcÃ©e with the washed-up career!
I scratched at my prickly skin and wrestled with a monster called stage fright, while Ramon navigated traffic and delivered his tour guide spiel. His description of Lauderdale's Blue Wave Beachâwhite sand and crystal-clear surfâprovided an escape from my imagination's crash-and-burn scenario. “Gee, it sounds beautiful. Think we can take a detour, Charlie?”
“Paradise awaits in the Caribbean,” Arch said, heavy on the Cary Grant accent. “Patience, love.”
He halted my scratching by clasping my hand and nuzzling my ear. My eyes rolled back in my head. Not that he noticed since I was wearing my mambobig and dark sunglasses. The orgasmic groan, he noticed.
“Newlyweds,” he explained to Ramon.
The dark-eyed Cuban checked me out via the rearview mirror. Men of various ages and ethnicities had been checking me out all morningâthe bellhop, the front desk clerk, a group of conventioneers. Jayne would've shot them a disapproving look. Nicole would've twitched her hips or flipped them the bird, depending on her mood. I didn't have a standard reaction. Men didn't leer at women like me.
Except, I wasn't me. I was Sugar.
Every smarmy wink and suggestive smile validated my acting skills and boosted my damaged ego. I'd probably wake up tomorrow or the day after feeling cheap, but just now I felt desirable.
Take that, Sasha
I sensed myself sinking deeper into fantasyland, disconnecting with Evie Parish and embracing Sugar Dupont.
“Lucky man,” Ramon said with a sexy smile.
“Yes, I am.”
I pretended that Arch was sincere, another positive charge to my confidence. I'll take all the zaps I can get. Then I thought about something else he'd said. Not the paradise part, because that only summoned visions of us doing the horizontal rumba, but the part about the Caribbean. I hadn't given thought as to
we'd be sailing. I'd been too focused on my performance. My mind fast-reeled with movies filmed in the islands. Tropical images burned bright. I could hear Bob Marleyâ“
One love, one heart.
” I could taste the rum. I could feel my cares slipping away.