Authors: Melissa Schroeder
PRELUDE TO A SECRET
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Prelude to a Secret
Copyright © 2014 by Melissa Schroeder
Published by Harmless Publishing
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
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This is a prelude, or prequel, to A Little Harmless Secret. The story will not end with this book. To find out how they find their Happily Ever After, you will have to read A Little Harmless Secret.
Prelude to a Secret
Alicia Hughes looked out over the casino and fought the urge to cringe. Her ears rang from all the dings from the slot machines and the roar of conversation. Drawing in a deep breath, she counted backward from ten…then did it three more times. Too many people, too many noises.
Suck it up, buttercup. An agent for MI-6 doesn’t have breakdowns.
Her father’s voice was louder than the noise that surrounded her. Even the memory of it bothered her. It wasn’t as if he could see what she was doing, what risks she was taking. But, then, she hadn’t heard from him for weeks, so she had no idea what the bloody hell he was up to.
She shook those thoughts away. He had given her an assignment. Even after the Americans told them to back off, she wanted to find this man. Her sources told her he was in Las Vegas and so here she was.
Drawing in another breath, she found a black jack table and made her way over to it. She didn’t like to gamble with money…just her career choices apparently. She knew her assignment liked this particular casino and black jack was his game. It was her fourth and final night before she had to get back to London.
Walking down the aisle was hard for her. The silver sequined dress barely covered all her particulars. Every step she took, she had to fight the urge to tug the dress down. She wasn’t a woman who dressed to attract attention. Not normally.
Dress to draw attention only if it helps with the job.
Yes, her father had been repeating that to her since she’d hit sixteen. She hadn’t been an agent of course, but that didn’t matter to her father. He’d been training her since she’d been twelve, and their world had exploded. Now, though, she needed to draw attention to herself from one man in particular.
Alicia ignored the men who smiled at her as she passed by them. None of them interested her like the one she had been hunting for six months. She wasn’t the first agent to look for him, but she wanted to be the last.
Nothing like trying to outdo the boys, is there, Alicia?
Mentally, she silenced her father’s voice and picked the chair at the end. The dealer smiled at her, his gaze roaming over her but not in a way that made her think he was interested in her. He was sizing her up as a participant, nothing more.
She played a couple of hands when the man next to her cashed out and left. She was starting to get discouraged, when something brushed the fine hairs on the back of her neck. A man slipped into the chair beside her.
“Deal me in, Sanchez,” he said, his voice rumbling over the words.
“Sure thing, Mr. Stryker.”
It took her a second or two to gather her wits. Then, she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye to find dark blue eyes studying her. He smiled, and her heartbeat tripped. Damn he was lethal.
“How goes your luck tonight, sugar?”
Any other man called her sugar, and she’d break his bloody nose. But, this was the job. Besides, she liked the way his voice sounded when he said the word.
“Not so good,” she said, allowing that thought to linger in the air. Then, she smiled. “That is until now.”
His smile widened. “Well, that’s nice to hear.”
* * * *
The man known as Devon Stryker placed his bet on the table and relaxed against the back of the stool. The woman to his left interested him, but Devon did his best to keep that to himself. He’d only ended up in the casino tonight because he’d been frustrated as hell. Every promising lead he’d had the last few years had been crap. The last one three weeks ago had been the most promising but it had been shit. There had been times in the last ten years where he hadn’t been able to track her but never this long. Now…he was desperate. It wasn’t a position he liked to find himself in.
“Do you always day dream when you’re gambling?”
The smooth, sultry voice of the woman pulled him out of his brooding. There was enough amusement in her voice to tell him she was teasing him. When he glanced at her, he realized she wasn’t looking at him. Instead, she was fondling her chips and watching Sanchez.
“Not always,” he said, turning back to look at the cards he’d been dealt.
She said nothing else and damn him to hell, he was intrigued. Not many women would sit next to him, looking like that, and ignore him. Devon knew the way women looked at him and knew it had more to do with his money than his looks, but that was okay by him. His life didn’t allow for long attachments.
As they played through a few hands, she said little. Her voice was sultry, but what made it even more attractive was the hint of Scotland he
heard in it. He wasn’t sure if he had the correct accent since it was so slight. But, then a lot of people wouldn’t pick up on it. The Company had thought he needed to detect things of that nature so they’d trained him. Big mistake on their part, but he was thankful for it today.
They played a few more hands, and he found himself more intrigued with each play she made. She wasn’t as bold as he was, but she definitely took a few chances here and there.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
Sanchez gave him a strange look, but Devon ignored it. He knew most of the workers in the pit would be amused by the way he was acting. Devon wasn’t a man who used old pickup lines on women…not when he was playing. When she said nothing, he glanced at her in time to see her lips curve.
“That’s not a very original line, Mr. Stryker.”
Suspicion darkened a small part of his brain. “How do you know my name?”
She chuckled as she took a peek at her cards. “I believe Sanchez called you by name.”
Damn. Heat rose in his cheeks, and he knew there was a chance he was acting like a fool now.
“Oh, okay.” He sounded like an idiot, but that was probably because he was an idiot. “Since you know my name…”
He left the question hanging.
When she looked directly at him, his brain melted. He’d met a lot of pretty women, but this one…she was stunning because she wasn’t perfect. Most of the women he had known in the last few years had probably spent a fortune to perfect their bodies. This woman did not. Otherwise, she would have fixed that slightly crooked nose.
For a second, he didn’t comprehend what she was saying. “What?”
She grinned, and sparks of heat danced through his blood. “My name is Alicia.”
He drew in a deep breath and ordered his body to take a break, but his hormones were ignoring him. It made sense since it had been weeks since he’d had a woman in his bed, but he’d been preoccupied with finding Marjorie. Maybe one night of fun would be good for him—especially with an interesting woman like the blonde next to him.
“You don’t look like an Alicia.”
One eyebrow rose in question. “Indeed?”
God, he loved that prissy tone. It made him want to get her to laugh, do something spontaneous. He wasn’t sure why, but Devon was convinced this woman didn’t do things on a whim. She was a planner.
Then he turned back to the game. It only took her a few seconds to ask, “What do I look like?”
He turned to her again and studied her. “Ali. I like Ali for you.”
She snorted and for that one split second everything seemed to disappear from around them. It was so completely out of character for a woman as put together as she was.
“Ali. Well, that’s a first.”
“Don’t tell me no one has called you Ali before.”
She looked at him as the humor drained from her face. “Not for a very long time.”
“Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten dinner, and I was wondering if you would like to get a bite to eat.”
She seemed to hesitate, and that irritated him. He wasn’t a man who got mad if a woman turned him down, but for some reason, he wanted this. Wanted to spend time alone with her.
“Would you freak out if I invited you up to my room? I have a suite so we won’t be sitting on a bed.”
She didn’t answer right away, and he wondered if he had pushed it too far. Devon didn’t usually show his hand this early in the game, and if he thought about it, he might be more than a little worried why he was with this woman.
“Nothing else?” she asked.
“That’s up to you.”
She didn’t answer right away. Then, after a few long moments, she smiled. “Okay.”
* * *
Alicia was already a bundle of nerves but now she was even worse. Any other assignment would have her thrilled at getting into the private room of the mark. But…this one had her heart turning over, her pulse beating completely out of control.
She stepped into the suite and had to hide her reaction. This wasn’t the average suite, but a massive suite with a bar, a view of Las Vegas most people would kill for, and she was sure more than one bedroom. Her heels clicked against the marble floor.
He chuckled. The sound slid down her spine.
“Nice is what you get when you throw money around.”
Straight forward and honest. It was something she liked about him. The fact the CIA had trained him apparently didn’t matter. It only mattered that he wasn’t lying about this.
She turned and faced him. Immediately, her brain blanked for a few seconds. He was looking at her as if she were his next meal. Granted, she had done this so many times before, and she should be accustomed to that look. But it was different, so different this time. There was another edge to the arousal that she wasn’t comfortable with.
The panic slammed into her out of nowhere. What the hell was the matter with her?
Do the job, Alicia. Feelings, worries, that’s all for other times. Just get the man.
She cleared her throat. “Should we order?”
“I ordered for us already.”
Of course, he did. People like Devon Stryker did what they wanted. “That’s a bit presumptuous.”
“Most women go for that sort of thing.”
She laughed. “Learn now, Mr. Stryker, I’m not like most women.”
He cocked his head as he studied her. “I have a feeling you don’t do that very often.”
Her humor faded. “What?”
“Laugh. And please, call me Devon. I feel weird having you use my surname.”
She walked away, trying to calm her nerves again. It wasn’t easy. Warmth spread low in her tummy. He’s an assignment, not a date. Hell, she didn’t understand dating to begin with, unless it was in the context of the job. Flirting was a way to bring in a job, entrap him. She could handle that. This time, it was different.
Of course, she wasn’t officially on the job. There was no one listening through well-placed bugs, and there wasn’t anyone to save her if he discovered she was MI-6. She might not have heard from her father in a few weeks, but Devon Stryker was the only lead she had, and she would do anything to find her father. It was a little too suspicious that her
father sent her after Stryker right before disappearing off the face of the earth.
The fast text she had sent her cousin about finding Stryker was the only contact she’d had with anyone.
“Maybe I don’t have much to laugh about.”
“Then you’ve been spending time with the wrong men in my opinion. You’re a woman who should laugh and laugh often.”
She sighed as she stepped up to the windows. The ceiling to floor windows allowed for a spectacular view, but she didn’t really see it. “You don’t know anything about me.”
And this byplay was making her feel worse. She didn’t understand why now her scruples would come to bother her, but it was there. Maybe it was because he was so genuine.
There was a knock on the door, and he rose to answer it. He was sexy, sure. But she had seduced other men women would have killed just to have a drink with. This man…there was something different.
Maybe it was because she was on her own. For the first time in a very long time, the seduction was private. It wouldn’t hurt to go a little further than usual…to go all the way. She had done it before, but for this night, she could pretend it was real.
She watched his reflection in the windows as he approached her from behind. Why was her throat suddenly dry? He skimmed his hands over her bare shoulders as he held her eye contact in the reflection.
“I almost didn’t go down tonight, but I decided I needed to get my mind off my troubles. Needed a break.”
Stark honesty. She knew he was telling the truth. She turned to face him.
“And what does Mr. Devon Stryker have to worry about? You have everything you want right here.”
He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut and shook his head.
“You can’t always get everything you want with money.”
In her experience, she had always found the opposite was true. More people were ready to sell their souls for a few pounds.
“Why don’t we eat?” he asked.
She looked over his shoulder at the table setup in the living area. Two candles had been lit, and the dinner he had ordered had been set on a wide, square coffee table. He took her right hand and led her to the large sofa.