Authors: Vivi Andrews
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
To Betsy, with thanks for a fabulous “research” weekend in Atlantic City. To Leslie & Craig (who won this dedication in a game of Sheepshead) for being rock stars even if they do force me to do manual labor every time I visit. And to the rest of the Northwestern crowd—Leigh, Brian, Dave, Keyvan & Christine—who once a year remind me how awesome it is to be an incurable nerd. Y’all are the best. (Go Cats!)
Prologue—Public Indecency, the Gift that Keeps On Giving
Ciara Liung was not, habitually, the kind of girl who leapt buck naked into the dunk tank at the Atlantic City pier at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, in full view of horrified mommies, pubescent acne-covered ring-toss attendants and one very pissed-off federal agent.
But there was a first time for everything.
Ciara ducked behind the Plexiglas tank to whip her dress off over her head—no sense giving the teenage carnies any more of a thrill than absolutely necessary. Giving Junior his first public stiffy was not high on her list of priorities. She hunched down behind the dubious shield of the transparent tank and slipped out of her underwear, shivering a little even though it was in the mid-eighties and humid as hell.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. And public indecency.
She clambered up onto the platform above the dunk tank and bent at the waist with her arms wrapped around her chest in an attempt to keep the show PG-13.
By the time the tourists in the arcade—and Special Agent Nathan Smith of the Federal Bureau of Investigating Assholes—realized Ciara was about to have her own private skinny-dipping session, it was too late to stop her.
The water beneath her had a slightly brown, used-dishwater look to it. Not exactly sanitary, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. It was water. That was good enough.
Just before she took the plunge, Ciara glanced up. Her gaze locked on Nate Smith’s angry brown eyes.
The combination of blond hair and melty-chocolate brown eyes on a man had always made Ciara’s insteps turn to mush, but Nate’s eyes didn’t look like melty chocolate at the moment. More like he was channeling Satan’s henchmen.
He was tall enough to see over the crowd as he shouldered his way through, but he couldn’t move very quickly. He seemed so capable, such a big strong take-charge man, that Ciara had often forgotten over the last few days why he moved so deliberately. The limp and the cane were actually pretty damn sexy, in a
. kind of way. And Nate had the House trademark take-no-shit-from-anybody assholeness down pat.
If Dr. House were a fallen-angel-gorgeous federal agent with a chip on his shoulder the size of Quantico, he’d look just like Nate Smith.
He really didn’t have any right to look so pissed off. He’d practically told her to do this. She wouldn’t even be in Atlantic City if not for him.
Nate plowed across the distance between them as fast as his limp would allow him. “Ciara, don’t you da—”
She dropped into the water. As soon as it closed over her head, the entire world washed away. Nate’s anger, the arcade, everything vanished into insignificance in that peaceful cocoon, the static of her daily life muted.
Her hair swirled loose in the water around her. Ciara closed her eyes and pictured the necklace. The water did what it always did, acting as a catalyst and engaging her gift. In a flickering montage behind her eyelids, she saw the sparkling glass high-rise of the Borgata Hotel & Casino, a plush living room with cream-colored sofas, a woman in a bright pink bustier and hot pants with silver eyelashes and a long pink ponytail, a small silver safe sitting on the floor of a closet…
Then Nate’s hand closed over her arm and the vision incinerated. From one second to the next, the water turned from cool aqua-perfection into molten lava. His hand felt like liquid nitrogen, the touch of it cold enough to burn through her skin instantly. Ciara tried to block out the pain, tried to focus on the necklace, but the contact seared through her senses. She screamed against the burn, and water rushed into her mouth.
Beneath the smothering blanket of pain, a small piece of her consciousness tried to command her legs to kick her toward the surface, to push off the walls of the tank, to do
, but her body refused to do anything other than contort and writhe in the lava bath.
She was going to drown in four feet of brackish water inside a Plexiglas box.
Naked. In public. With crowds of gaping tourists gathering around. If she hadn’t been snorting dishwater up her nose, she would have gone all
and asked them if they were not entertained.
The spectacle was a bizarrely fitting end. Death at a carnival. Like the sideshow freak she was.
Her vision began to go fuzzy, blurring around the edges, and an eerie calm settled over her thoughts.
The lost girl, finder of all things lost, went out into the world looking for life and found death. There was an odd sort of poetry in that. Macabre as all hell, but poignant in its own way.
The freezer-burn hand on her arm gave a sharp jerk.
Poor Agent Smith. He got shot, yanked off his dream assignment, and now she died on his watch. The poor guy just couldn’t catch a break.
Of course, if the idiotic man had only listened to her in the first place, none of this would have happened. It was a sad state of affairs when a girl had to drown herself to prove her innocence.
Yep, her death was his fault. The bastard. He clearly owed her an apology and she fully intended to collect.
Just as soon as she grew gills.
Chapter One—Clothing Optional Jewel Thief
Four days earlier…
Special Agent Nate Smith glared at the cozy ranch-style house on Honeydew Circle. It looked as innocuous as every other cookie-cutter cottage on the cul-de-sac. On the surface, there was no sign that the resident of 1134 Honeydew Circle was linked to eighty-five of the last hundred major jewelry thefts in the United States.
An abandoned tricycle and a beat-up basketball littered the neighboring yard. Across the street, a minivan waited in the driveway for the carpool hour.
Nate limped up the flower-lined front walk, pushing through the now-familiar pain in his left thigh.
The crooks were moving to the suburbs and making themselves at home. Bad enough that criminals flaunted their ill-gotten gains in high-rise hotels and plush mansions. Did they have to infiltrate sweet little neighborhoods like this one too? Was nothing sacred?
Honeydew Circle was exactly the kind of street he could see himself settling down on someday. Provided he ever got off his ass and went out with one of the “nice girls” his mother delighted in throwing at him. If he was honest, part of him was glad his mom was so determined to find him Miss Right. He sure as hell wasn’t going to meet a nice girl on the job. Especially not in his new assignment handling the Jewelry and Gemstone program’s top informant.
Ciara Liung was not a nice girl. He’d bet his badge on it.
No one had the kind of information this woman had without being dirty through and through. No matter what kind of supernatural bullshit they tried to pass that knowledge off as.
A psychic jewel finder.
Nate snorted to himself. What kind of fool did they take him for? The location of stolen gems didn’t magically appear to anyone. Hell, Jesus himself wasn’t that connected with the universe. Cure the lepers, no problem. Find four hundred and seventy million dollars in stolen gems over the course of three years? Not likely.
There was only one rational conclusion. Ms. Ciara Liung, the JAG program’s secret weapon, was a crook.
Nate didn’t care what the Bureau policy was about flipping crooks for the greater good. He’d already learned his lesson about trusting criminals with pretensions of virtue. He tightened his grip on the cane, the burn in his thigh a constant reminder.
Nate pressed the doorbell, listening to the chimes echoing cheerfully inside the house.
Saturday afternoon. Miss Liung wouldn’t be expecting him.
He could have waited until Monday. He’d been cleared for duty this morning, but his superiors didn’t expect him to report for work for a few more days. Since the bullet had ripped through the muscle in his thigh and turned him into a desk jockey, he was technically a nine-to-fiver, but giving him a cushy handler assignment didn’t make him domesticated. He lived the job, twenty-four-seven, and that wasn’t going to change. If he caught Ciara Liung off-guard, he had a better shot of catching her in her lies.
Provided she ever opened the damn door.
She had to be home. He’d been itching to get back in the game for weeks. He’d go crazy if he had to wait another day.
Nate leaned on the doorbell, keeping up a steady ringing until a feminine voice yelled, “Knock it off! I’m coming already.”
The door swung open.
Christ on crutches, it’s Lucy Liu.
The petite Asian woman stood in the doorway wearing nothing but a towel. Water dripped from the tips of her long black hair to puddle on the tile at her feet. Every edible inch of her creamy white skin was on display. She crossed her arms beneath her breasts in a way that made the towel’s hold on them seem tantalizingly precarious.
“Can I help you?”
Can you ever
. Nate pulled his eyes up from the wet cleavage and focused on her fine-boned face. Her lips were pursed in a kissable bow. Up-tilted black eyes met his without wavering. Her direct gaze wasn’t what he expected from someone who made her living by lying and stealing, but he knew better than to trust a pretty pair of eyes.
Where the hell was his brain? She was a person of interest in eighty-five federal investigations. This was no time to be thinking with his dick. Even if she was the spitting image of Lucy Liu.
“Ciara Liung?” Nate flipped out his ID. He straightened to his most imposing federal posture. “Special Agent Nate Smith, FBI. I’m your new handler.”
Ciara looked up at six-plus feet of chiseled federal agent on her doorstep. Her first instinct was to say he could
Unfortunately, there were two flaws with the blatant flirtation tactic.
One: the tall blond man standing on her doorstep with his George Clooney-cleft chin and grim, chocolate-brown eyes looked like he was all business. Mr. Professional. He probably wouldn’t be amused by her amateur attempt to talk dirty.
Two, and more importantly, the kind of
she had in mind definitely involved touching, and the psychic feedback from her gift—or curse, depending on how you spun it—made human contact excruciating.
Which was just fine and dandy. Ciara was perfectly content being untouchable. Happy, almost. It was amazing what you could adjust to when you had no choice. She’d lived without skin-to-skin contact for long enough that she’d resigned herself to that reality, steering clear of temptation.
Until Agent Testosterone came banging on her door, tromping all over her happy resignation with his big sexy pheromones and making her wish she was a touchable kind of girl.
As if wishing ever changed anything.
“What happened to Agent Cranson?” She liked her old handler. Portly, grandfatherly Agent Cranson, who never upset the status quo.
“Retired,” Agent Sexy-Pants answered curtly.
Her hormones didn’t appear to care that he had the verbal skills of a caveman. Her little heart went pitter-pat without any input from the logical part of her brain. The man was seriously gorgeous.
Ciara had a sudden empathy for all those male-female crime-solving duos on television, forced to endure season after season of unrequited sexual tension, fated never to get it on, because as soon as they did the show would be cancelled faster than you could say
She visualized her relationship with Special Agent Nate Smith stretching out into the future. Tension-filled silences, longing gazes and moments fraught with secret lust. What a nightmare.
“You could have just called to introduce yourself.” Agent Smith couldn’t possibly exude as many pheromones over the phone as he did in person. Keeping a nice, healthy distance seemed like a genius idea. She should get a McCarthy Grant for thinking of it. “Cranson never made house calls. That system worked fine and if it ain’t broke…”
“Things are going to work a bit differently now,” Agent Smith said, stomping her happy little daydreams of what she would do with all that Genius Grant money into daydream pulp. “I’m not Cranson.”
She couldn’t argue with that statement. She doubted easygoing Cranson had a single chromosome in common with the blond devil looming on her doorstep, looking at her like she’d just confessed to drowning kittens.
Wait a second.
Ciara frowned. Something wasn’t adding up. Agent Smith wasn’t looking at her like a federal agent ought to look at a valuable theft-stopping asset. He looked like he thought
was the thief. Or a phony.
“What exactly have you been told about what I do?” she asked cautiously.
“We give you the description of a stolen item and you locate it. By
.” His expression didn’t alter at all, but she got the sense he was sneering at her behind his blank mask.