Ethan pulled the rental car to a stop in front of the gate of Arthur Preston's home. It was impressive. The stone wall was eight feet high with decorative wrought iron spikes at the top. Ethan was sure they were electrified and not for decorative purposes at all. They looked damn sharp.
The gatehouse was built into the wall and look easily defensible, the gate itself was a huge double unit made of the same black wrought iron looking material that topped the brick wall. A much smaller gate slid back into the wall and a guard in a smart black uniform stepped through the opening.
He stopped directly beside the drivers side of the car and just waited.
Ethan opened the window and met the guard's flat stare. "This is Beth Whitney. She's got an appointment to interview with Mr. Preston."
The guard looked down at his clipboard and then up again. "Please step out of the car for a visual identification, Miss Whitney."
Beth went to pull the door handle, but Ethan stopped her. "Is that strictly necessary?"
Ethan frowned, playing his role of over protective boyfriend very well and nodded grudgingly. "Go ahead, sweetheart."
She climbed out of the car and came around to face the guard. Ethan was already standing in front of the driver's door, his expression brooding as he watched the guard.
The guard did a visual comparison to something on his clipboard and then smiled. "I'll escort you up to the house, Miss Whitney."
Ethan put a proprietary arm around her shoulder. "I'd rather drive her up, if it's all the same to you." His voice implied it had better be.
The guard's smile disappeared. "You are not on the appointment list, Mr. ..."
"Ethan Grange," Ethan replied giving an alias that Beth had learned was a well established identity for him.
Apparently being a writer of rather depressing literary fiction was a good cover in the espionage world. He even had two books published by a small press that had been subsidized by TGP. It was a good cover, one
"Mr. Grange, I'm afraid you'll have to wait out here."
"No. I'm going in with Beth, or she doesn't go."
Beth gasped, but he squeezed her shoulder and she subsided.
The guard looked at her with something that might have been sympathy. "I'm afraid that isn't possible."
"Then, we're leaving." He started guiding Beth toward the car.
She couldn't believe he was doing this. "Ethan..."
He ignored her protest and kept walking. "If your boss doesn't understand my desire to see to your comfort, he wouldn't be a good employer. You can't even see the house from here, honey. You aren't walking all that way on a whim of some rich dude who thinks he can control you and the rest of the world. You know I'd rather you didn't work at all."
The guard was talking into his comm.unit in low tones.
"But I wanted this job, Ethan. It's perfect for me and it's only part-time." If she sounded more irritated than cajoling, that couldn't be helped. She wasn't an actress and she didn't think the guard would notice the difference.
Ethan walked her around the car and tucked her into her seat before going back to the driver's side and climbing in.
"Wait. Mr. Grange...I've asked my employer to approve your entrance on the estate."
"I don't think—"
"Please, Ethan, don't be so difficult," Beth pleaded, impressed with Ethan's acting ability in spite of herself.
He smiled at Beth. "You really want this job, honey?"
"Yes," she gritted out, deciding right then that he could play the role of over protective and possessive boyfriend, but she didn't necessarily have to accept the one of total doormat.
"All right." He turned to the guard. "Well, what did he say?"
The guard was listening to something in the comm.unit. "Do you have proof of your identification?"
"Can I see it please?"
Ethan leaned over and grabbed a book off the backseat. "Here's my picture."
The book was a hardback with a dust cover and on it Ethan Grange was emblazoned in bold letters under a pretentious title. He flipped the book open and a picture of him in a dark turtle neck and black rimmed glasses was on the back inside flap of the dust cover. It was a totally supercilious move, and fit the persona of her pretend boyfriend to a T.
"I would prefer to see your driver's license, sir."
Beth's heart stuttered and then started beating again, but too fast. Of course Ethan would have a fake license to go with the identity, but she held her breath until he reached for his back pocket, grumbling the whole time. Adrenalin was surging through Beth in pulsing waves. This undercover stuff was stressful, but...weirdly fun.
The guard waved them through the gate and Beth breathed out a sigh of relief. "That was close."
"Don't say anything, Beth."
At first she thought he was staying true to his part, but then he shook his head imperceptibly.
And she remembered that he and her father had drilled into her that she needed to be circumspect about what she said while on Preston's property or anywhere close to it. She hadn't realized they meant the car too, but she should have. She knew as well as any agent that there were listening devices that could be targeted at her right now and relaying her conversation with Ethan to
"I wish you would have let me walk to the house with the guard. You almost cost me a chance at this job," she said, trying to play her role just in case.
It seemed like overkill, but then this man wouldn't be so hard to get to if he wasn't the ultra cautious sort.
"I wasn't letting you walk anywhere with that guy. Did you see the way he smiled at you?"
"He's interested, Beth. Stay away from him."
"Give it a rest, Ethan."
He winked at her, his approval of her playacting apparent and despite knowing that they were no better a fit than she and her parents, she felt warmth steal through her.
Another security guard met them at the front door and Ethan was shown to a room to wait while Beth was taken to
According to their intel, Arthur Preston was fifty-two years old, but with raven black hair, an unlined face, and the body of someone who obviously worked out, he looked much younger. Everywhere but his eyes. They were just flat, grey metal disks for irises, lacking all emotion and yet purveying the impression of a life that had seen things she never wanted to.
He asked the usual questions for a job of the nature he'd advertised and she answered them easily, confident in this aspect of the case. Though she felt like he watched her more closely than any other prospective employer had. There was a quality to his regard that she couldn't quite define, but she felt almost touched by his gaze.
It was not a nice feeling because despite his professional manner, she did not get the sense he was a nice man. She didn't think it was knowing he was one of the bad guys that was influencing her either. There was something about Arthur Preston that gave her the chills.
Then he went silent and looked at her speculatively for several seconds. "I heard you had problems at the front gate."
"Not with your guard. He was only doing his job."
"But your boyfriend objected to leaving you."
"Ethan can be a little over protective, but he didn't mean any offense by it."
"It won't, I promise," she said earnestly.
"I thought the job was part-time?"
"I may want to call on your expertise outside your usual hours and there are times I entertain business associates that I might find your presence invaluable."
"I'm sure that won't be a problem." But her shock at his request showed.
She didn't think it would be out of character for her to react this way, so she didn't berate herself. Besides, he'd said he was looking for the quiet sort. She did shy well, since it was a natural part of her personality.
She nodded and wrote down the number for the hotel. "We're checked in under Ethan's name."
"Very good. I'll call you and let you know my decision personally." He brushed her fingers with his and she had to fight to keep from yanking her hand away.
"Um...that's wonderful. Thanks." Her skin itched with discomfort as she unobtrusively slipped her hand back and stood up. "I'll just collect Ethan and go."
He stood and took her arm. "Let me walk you, Beth. I may call you Beth?"
"Yes, of course."
"Should you end up working for me, you will call me Arthur. I do not stand on formality with my closer advisors."
He certainly stood on formality with his security team, but he was looking at her like a meal he'd like to devour. While it made her skin crawl, she couldn't help thinking it was a totally unexpected development. She couldn't wait to tell Ethan. Surely if
They were thirty minutes from Preston's estate back toward
Ethan's reaction was explosive. "What the hell are you talking about? You are not the agent in charge of securing information. You are the conduit, Beth. You will not encourage
"Don't be ridiculous. With a little effort on my part, I'm sure I could end up at some of these business meetings he mentioned."
"It would be totally out of character for your role."
"Wrong. You're not looking at the big picture here, Ethan. I'm a fairly intelligent woman. And no matter how shy I am, I'm bound to chafe at restrictions placed on me by an over protective boyfriend. I can encourage the attraction under the cover of a minor rebellion on my part."
Ethan's jaw hardened and his hands tightened on the steering wheel. "You aren't encouraging anything. I mean it, Beth. This man is dangerous and you aren't trained to play that kind of role with him."
"I don't think it takes a lot of training to do the man-woman thing."
"That's where you are wrong."
"You seriously think I need agent training to engage in a light flirtation?"
"You are not engaging in anything with Arthur Preston."
"You don't think I'm woman enough?" She crossed her arms and looked out the window. "I may not be gorgeous like Elle, but he's already interested Ethan. All I have to do is encourage him a little."
"It has nothing to do with your feminine allure. I obviously think you have plenty of that."
She said nothing.
He frowned. "Believe me, Beth, this kind of thing requires proper training."
"I just don't see what kind of training I could possibly need just to flirt a little."
"You'd be surprised."
"Maybe I would."
He shot her a sideways look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, we've already agreed that you and I started this sex thing between us because it was good for the case and I'm just wondering if a big portion of your response isn't training."
"I never agreed to any such thing."
"You said the timing was because of the case."
"That's not the same thing as saying I'm taking you to bed for it."
"I thought we already had this discussion."
"But you came away with the wrong conclusion."
"I don't think so."
The noise he made was one-hundred percent masculine irritation. "Do you honestly believe that if my response to you was nothing more than part of my training that I would be worried about the level of intensity? Believe it, or not, I'm more professional than that."
"You said it had been a while. You're reacting more strongly than you expected, but that doesn't mean it isn't part of some master plan."
"Seducing you was not part of my master plan for the case," he gritted.
"You didn't exactly seduce me."
"Damn right I didn't. It was entirely mutual."
"I never said it wasn't."
"You implied it was just part of the job on my side."
She was sure to an extent that was true, but he obviously felt there was more to it as well. The man was really worried about the intensity thing. "Maybe it would be less confusing if it was."
"Why? So you could compartmentalize me with your other fantasies?"
"It's more than a fantasy now."
"Yes, it is. It's a relationship."
"What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Do you notice how you swear a lot when you get irritated?"
"It only happens with you."
"I don't believe that."
"Ask my mama. She raised me not to curse in front of women, but you wind me up." And he sounded apologetic about that. Embarrassed even.
"I don't mean to."
"I don't believe that for a minute. You've got an ornery streak, Beth, about as wide and deep and
"Gullies aren't that wide...or deep."
"They are in
"According to Texans, everything is big there."
"It is," he said suggestively.
She laughed. "Well, I'd have to agree about some things anyway."
He smiled, but then went all serious again. "We have a relationship, Beth."
"We have sex. That you want to keep light."
"We're friends and we're lovers; that makes it more than just sex."
"If you say so."
"I do. And I also say that you are not going to encourage
"If I think otherwise?"
"I'll pull you from the case."
"You wouldn't. It took too long to get this in. You aren't giving it up on stubborn principle."
"No, I'm not. But I'll give it up to ensure your safety. You know he's dangerous."
"So you've said, but just because he sells information to the enemy doesn't mean he's going to hurt a woman."
"He's had women and men killed, Beth."
"Because he knew they were agents. He doesn't know about me and I'm not going to blow my cover."
"Are you attracted to him?" he asked through stiff lips.
"Are you kidding? He gives me the willies."
"And you think you can hide that?"
"I think if I can't, he'll like knowing. He's that kind of man."
"Which is all the more reason to keep your sweet behind out of his sights."
"I don't think it's my behind he's interested in."
"With a man like him, you never know."
"Now, you're just being alarmist."
"No, dam—darn it, I'm not. Men like him eat women like you for dinner."
"Give it a break."
"I'm being serious here."
"You're being paranoid."
"We agreed I was the agent in charge."
"We also agreed that I'm not brain dead."
"I never said you were."
"Then don't treat me like it."
"Disagreeing with you is not doubting your intelligence."
"Maybe not, but trying to lay down the law without talking about it, is."
"We have been talking about it!"
"Don't yell at me. We started off with one of your unilateral commands if you'll recall."
"Which you didn't listen to."
"I listened, I didn't agree."
"I'm going crazy here, Beth. Stop arguing with me just for the sake of it."
"Is that what I'm doing?"
"It feels like it."
"As opposed to me simply disagreeing with your decision?"
She laughed. "But I do disagree."
"And when we disagree..."
She sighed, knowing what he wanted her to admit. "You get final say as agent in charge."
"After due deliberation and discussion."
"Is there more you want to say on this?"
"Only that I think we should leave the option open."
"We aren't going to exercise it."
"I agree...for now."