“YOUR AGENCY HAS THE JOB, but only under one condition.”
Taylor Milton Corben, owner and CEO of Eros Airlines and Fantasy Adventure Vacations, folded her arms and leveled a look at former Air Force Captain Dougal Lockhart. Taylor was a sophisticated redhead with chic blond highlights threaded through her stylish hair, unwavering chocolate brown eyes and dynamite legs. She was also the new wife of Dougal’s best friend, Daniel Corben.
Dougal drew himself up to his full six-foot-two-inch height and held Taylor’s steady gaze. He should have known there would be a catch. In his experience, there was always a catch.
Did her stipulation have anything to do with the reason he’d left the military and started his own private duty air marshal service? Daniel had probably told her what had happened to him in Germany. Instinctively Dougal stuck his hand in his pants pocket and ran his fingertips over the 9mm slug fragment that he’d had turned into a key chain precisely so he wouldn’t forget. The bullet scar at his upper right thigh—at the very same level as his pocket—throbbed at the memory.
Dougal steeled himself for a proviso he couldn’t live with, but he wasn’t in any position to be choosy. He needed the work. He was trying to get his fledgling business off the ground and it was a struggle. Last month he’d been forced to take out a loan just to make payroll. But there were some things he simply wouldn’t do. No matter how badly he needed the money.
“What’s the condition?” He fisted his hands.
“I want you and your team to go undercover—”
“That’s a given.”
She ignored his interruption and went on smoothly. “As tour guides.”
“Tour guides?” She caught him off guard with that one.
“Tour guides,” she repeated.
“I need you and your men not just on my planes, but at my resorts, as well.” She leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs and angled her head to size him up.
“The Lockhart Agency is an air marshal service, not resort security,” he said.
“Should I take that to mean you don’t want the job?”
Dammit, he did want the job and she was well aware of it. At least she hadn’t made any reference to Germany or Ava. He shifted his weight, his feet shoulder-width apart, hands resting on his hips.
Taylor laughed. “You look like an old West gun-slinging sheriff staving off a lynch mob, Dougal. Relax, have a seat.”
He forced himself to drop his arms by his sides and settle into the plush leather couch across from Taylor’s expensive mahogany desk. He did have a tendency to brace for battle even when there was nothing to brace for.
“What does the job entail?” he asked.
“You’ll work for the entire first two weeks in May,” she said. “It’s a fourteen-day tour.”
He nodded. “No problem there.”
“You and your men will take tour guide training with the rest of my employees. You’ve got four men. We have four new tours starting next month and I want air marshals on all the planes and at the facilities.”
“Okay,” he said cautiously. “What else?”
“You’ll be required to wear costumes.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s nonnegotiable.” Taylor might look like a pampered supermodel, but she was a sharp business woman. “In fact, if you decide to take the job, you should start growing your beard now.”
“Beard?” Involuntarily his hand went up to stroke his jaw. He’d never worn facial hair in his life.
“You’ll be playing the Bard.”
Dougal frowned. “I’m not following you.”
“I’m concerned that the saboteur is targeting the Romance of Britannia tour next, and the lead tour guide on that junket dresses as Shakespeare. Or rather the Shakespeare in Love version of what he dressed like.”
“Why are you so sure the saboteur is targeting that particular tour?”
Taylor opened up her desk, took out a green file folder and passed it across her desk. Dougal opened it and read the letter inside.
You thought those little incidents at your Venice resort was trouble? You haven’t seen anything yet, bitch. Just wait until one of your planes falls from the sky. Wouldn’t that set tongues wagging? Do you have any idea how vulnerable your air fleet is? Just take a look.
Attached to the anonymous letter was a schematic of the inside of a Bombardier CRJ200. In the margins, written in red, was a detailed listing of the numerous ways a saboteur could cripple the private jet.
His blood chilled.
Dougal raised his head and met Taylor’s gaze. For the first time, he saw real fear in her eyes and he was strangely comforted. If she was afraid, that meant she was taking the threats seriously, and the fact that she’d laid her cards on the table made him feel instantly calmer. He was the kind of guy who liked to have a map of the quicksand bogs before he ventured into the jungle. “What did the police say when you showed them the note?”
Taylor plowed a hand through her hair. “I didn’t.”
“I don’t want any more negative publicity than I’ve already gotten. I prefer to keep this in-house.”
“We should have it dusted for prints.”
“I already sent it out to a private lab. There were dozens of prints on the envelope, none on the letter beyond mine and the temp who’s been filling in since my executive assistant decided not to return from maternity leave.”
“What happened in Venice?”
Taylor inhaled audibly. “A few months back my Venice resort experienced a series of…problems.”
“Malfunctioning smoke alarms that allowed a fire in the laundry room to go undetected until it had done several thousand dollars’ worth of damage. It was suspicious because the smoke alarms had just passed inspection the week before.”
“Cause of the blaze?”
“After one of the scheduled banquet feasts, a few guests contracted food poisoning, sending them to the hospital for treatment. And finally a Renoir was stolen. The security system had been turned off, and the police suspected an inside job. I fired the manager, hired someone new. Taken one by one it seemed like mere coincidence, but then I learned an exposé reporter was following me.”
“The incident between you and Daniel in Spain,” he said.
“Yes.” She nodded. “Once the reporter aired his piece, I thought the sabotage was all over. Apparently—” she waved at the letter Dougal was still holding “—I was wrong, and the guy was just lying in wait, lulling me into a false sense of security.”
“You believe it’s a man?”
She shrugged. “Aren’t men usually the ones who do these kinds of things?”
Dougal thought of Ava. “Not necessarily.”
Taylor pulled her lips back in a pensive expression. “I hadn’t considered a woman.”
“What makes you think this saboteur is going to strike the Romance of Britannia tour?”
“That diagram is not just any generic Bombardier schematic. It was torn from the handbook of the plane that services that specific tour.” She pulled the handbook from her desk and tossed it to him.
Dougal opened it to the back where the schematics were located and saw the jagged edges where the paper had been ripped out. It didn’t take a crime scene investigator to see that the torn segments matched. “Any clue as to who could be behind this?”
She shook her head. “I’m no stranger to controversy, you know that. There have been outspoken religious fundamentalists picketing my resorts, condemning them as hedonistic and wicked. Then there are the superkinky customers who threaten to sue me because Eros refuses to fulfill their illegal fantasies. My competitors are jealous of the way I’ve taken my father’s dated commuter airline model and given it a very profitable new millennium makeover. But many on the board of directors are unhappy about this new direction. Making enemies is all part of doing business in the tourism industry.”
“This feels more personal.” He fingered the torn pages. “For one thing, how did they get access to the jet’s handbook?”
“I don’t know. That’s where you come in.”
“I’m not sure how my men are going to like dressing up and playing tour guide.”
“I understand it’s asking a lot. I’m willing to sweeten the deal.” She named a figure so high it was all Dougal could do not to blink in disbelief. “What do you say?”
He smiled. “How can I refuse?”
Taylor reached across the desk, rested her hand on Dougal’s forearm. “I want this person caught and I want my guests kept safe.”
“We’ll take care of it.”
“I’m counting on you.”
He got to his feet, thought about what happened in Germany and swallowed hard. He could do this. He had to do this. He’d learned from his past. He wouldn’t be played for a fool again. He met Taylor’s steady gaze and made her a promise. “You can depend on me. I won’t let you down.”
At that moment, a knock sounded on the door and before Taylor could say, “Come in” the door opened and a heavyset older gentleman, with a straight-shouldered military bearing, stepped over the threshold.
Immediately, Dougal saluted the former general who had once been his superior officer. “General Miller, sir.”
“Please.” The general waved his hand. “There’s no need for that. We’re both retired.”
Dougal relaxed his stance.
“How are you, Uncle Chuck?” Taylor asked and got up to give the general a kiss on his cheek.
“I’m just fine, princess.” He wrapped an arm around her waist.
“How’s Aunt Mitzi?”
“Blowing through all my money on a spa day with her friends.” He grinned at her, and then looked at Dougal. “Are you in the middle of something here? I thought I’d take you to lunch and you could tell me what’s going on with that sabotage business.”
“Actually, I just hired Dougal and his team to augment my security staff. I just received another threatening letter. This one targeting my air fleet.”
“Oh?” The general canted his head.
“I’ve started my own private air marshal service, sir,” Dougal explained.
“Ah.” Miller nodded. “Applying the lessons you learned about security after that mess in Germany.”
Was that a personal dig? The man’s tone made Dougal squirm in memory over what had happened. “Yes. And I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that Eros Air stays safe.”
“See that you do,” Miller said curtly. “See that you do.”
“HEY, HANDSOME, YOU CAN SHAKE your spear over here anytime you want.”
In light of that sexy remark, Dougal forced himself not to roll his eyes as a group of women filed onto the Bombardier CRJ200, chatting, giggling and finding their seats. The majority of them were young, rich and attractive. The red-haired woman who’d cracked the suggestive comment briefly met his gaze, then lowered her eyelashes, licked her lips and murmured, “Yummm-o,” before moving down the aisle.
It didn’t help matters that Dougal was dressed like Joseph Fiennes from Shakespeare in Love right down to the artsy, beatnik beard he was itching to shave.
After all, this was Eros Airlines and Fantasy Adventure Vacations and Taylor’s company’s catch phrase was Something Sexy in the Air. Other than the pilot and copilot, who were both pushing sixty, Dougal was the only male employee aboard. He felt like the last cut of prime beef in the meat market on the Fourth of July.
He was going to have to talk to Taylor. The puffy-sleeved shirt and skintight leather breeches were bad enough, but the facial hair simply had to go. Resisting the urge to scratch his jaw, Dougal greeted each guest with the requisite smile, welcoming them aboard with an affected British accent. It was going to be a long two weeks.
Look at the side benefits. You stand an excellent chance of getting laid.
Except he and his men had signed a contract with a morality clause. While they were encouraged to flirt with the guests, sexual contact was strictly prohibited. Dougal watched a provocative young woman with a great ass wiggle away and he hissed out his breath.
Damn that morality clause.
That was the moment Dougal spotted her.
The last one to board.
The one who didn’t belong.
She stood out like a single red rose in a field full of dandelions, all genteel and otherworldly, an escapee from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He half expected to see unicorns and songbirds and butterflies trailing after her.
Her hair was raven’s-wing black, her skin pure alabaster, her eyes a stunning shade of ice-floe blue. She must be wearing contact lenses; no one’s eyes were that color naturally. She was dressed in a butter-yellow sundress made out of some soft, frothy material that caused his mouth to water. Dougal could taste the sugar-coated marshmallow bunnies and chickens his mother had put in his Easter basket when he was a kid.
Unbidden, he found himself imagining what she looked like underneath that springtime sundress. Did she have on white cotton panties with a sensible underwire bra? Or would he find a delightful surprise? Maybe a wicked scarlet bustier and G-string panties?
Dougal tilted his head. No, he decided. Pink satin tap pants and a matching camisole. Sweet yet sassy. A good girl longing for adventure but nervous about reaching out and grabbing what she desired.
And yet it was more than her ethereal beauty that set her apart from the others, and Dougal was trained to notice subtle differences. It was the serious, “all-business” slant to her slender shoulders and the determined set to her chin, as if she had something to prove. It was the perceptive expression in her eyes, the purposeful way she moved and the manner in which she was sizing him up just as intensely as he was measuring her.
No mere vacationer, this one. Not a woman simply looking for a good time. This enigmatic lady had an agenda.
Alarm bells went off in his head. Until he knew exactly what her agenda was, Dougal was keeping a close eye on her.
Another thing that didn’t fit—she was traveling solo. Everyone else on the vacation had traveling companions, but this mysterious miss appeared to be all alone. No doting husband or fiancé or boyfriend at her elbow. No best buddy yapping her ear off. No mother or sister or cousin.
Perhaps she also worked for Eros, maybe she was an actress paid to help set the stage for the Romance of Britannia tour the group was embarking upon and it was her first day on the job. If you put her in historical garb along the lines of the ridiculous outfit he’d been forced to wear, she’d be a shoo-in.
Except that Taylor hadn’t told him about any new employees joining the group, and he’d made it quite clear that he was to be kept in the loop regarding anything to do with passenger safety. Odd, though, that while his brain and experience were warning him to watch out for her, his gut was telling him something startling and stupid.
She’s the one you’ve been waiting for.
Why the hell was he giving himself mixed messages? The last time this had happened he’d ended up with a bullet in his thigh.
The woman reached the top step of the metal mobile stairs and their eyes met. Quickly she glanced at his outfit and when her gaze found his again, a slight grin tipped her lips. She was laughing at him.
He cocked an eyebrow, gave her his best Joe Cool expression and stretched out his hand. “Welcome to Eros Airlines, where your pleasure is our only concern.”
The greeting might have been prescribed, but the emphasis was all his. Dougal didn’t know why he extended his hand as she stepped into the cabin. He hadn’t shaken any of the other women’s hands. Impulse motivated. That bothered him because he struggled so hard to control his impulses.
For the longest moment she said nothing, merely stood there staring at his outstretched hand. It was damned unnerving.
“Hello,” she murmured in a husky, breathy voice, and then turned her back on him and started down the aisle.
“Wait,” he said and touched her shoulder, stopping her. Hold up, you ’re coming on too strong. You don’t want to blow your cover. “What’s your name?”
She turned back, raised an eyebrow. “My name?”
Why was she being so cryptic? Did she have something to hide or was he too hypervigilant?
“For our exemplary customer service.” He blurted the first excuse that came into his head and manufactured what he hoped was an earnest smile. “We didn’t earn our five-star rating by calling our guests ‘Hey You.’”
There it was again, that sly, amused grin, as if she found him extremely comical. “I’m Roxanne Stanley. But my friends call me Roxie.”
“Roxie.” He extended his hand again.
“You’re assuming we’re going to be friends.”
“Not assuming, just hoping.”
The minute their palms touched, a shudder shot straight down his spine. His stomach squeezed and his balls pulled up tight against his body and he was just…rocked.
The intensity of his reaction disturbed him. Resolutely he shook off the feeling. By nature he was a guarded man. It was the way he’d been born—cautious, cagey, always on the lookout for trouble, seeing the world though the eyes of a troubleshooter. Life circumstances had added to his innate wall, one emotional brick at a time. The one time he’d opened himself up, let down his guard, chipped a few bricks off the wall and—wham!