This vacation was supposed to bring a little excitement into Celia Carson's life--so why couldn't she shake her attraction to a staid, reserved accountant? And yet, she also couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to him than met the eye....
Federal agent Reed Hollander's undercover role was working a little too well for his liking. He'd believed Celia to be the key to bringing down a dangerous criminal organization. But he couldn't help wondering, was she the small-town innocent she seemed--or the sophisticated woman he suspected she really was?
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June 01, 2010
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Excerpt from A Match for Celia by Gina Wilkins
A pleasantly warm breeze caressed Reed Hollander's face as he sipped his coffee. He sat at a poolside resort table, beneath the shade of a gaily striped umbrella.
The morning couldn't have been more beautiful, or the colors more vivid. Bright, clear blue sky. Crimson, yellow, orange and white flowers against dark, scrupulously tended greenery. Sparkling turquoise water in the pool, and in the Gulf of Mexico that stretched to the horizon. Brilliant, mostly primary colors, ones a child might have chosen to paint the scene.
Reed felt a bit out of place in his dark gray shirt and lighter gray slacks. No child would have picked such somber shades. The woman swimming laps in the pool, however, fit in beautifully with her surroundings.
Her slender, peach-toned body was encased in a sleek scarlet maillot. Reed knew that her eyes were a bright, crystal blue and that her thick shoulder-length hair, when dry, was a glossy dark brown shot through with red highlights. A potent combination with her delicately oval face and enticing dimples.
He should know. He'd been watching her for three days.
He pulled his attention away from her for a moment to glance around. They were still the only ones out this morning. It was off-season--the first week of November--so the exclusive, South Padre Island, Texas, resort wasn't full, and the other guests generally preferred to sleep late. Reed and the pretty swimmer seemed to be the only early risers on this particular morning.
She reclaimed his attention by flipping into a turn and beginning another lap. She was obviously in very good shape. Not that he'd needed to watch her swim to know that.
He had just finished his first cup of coffee when she called it quits. He knew she was unaware that he'd been watching as she emerged from the pool by way of the steps closest to his table. Water streamed from her slender limbs, dripped from her hair. She looked young, pretty and sweetly appealing. Innocent.
Reed had reason to believe she wasn't quite what she appeared.
He slipped on the horn-rimmed glasses that had been lying at his elbow and stood, reaching her just in time to place a towel into her outstretched hand. "Here you are."
"Thank you," she said, and buried her face in the luxuriously soft towel for a moment. When she looked up, her face dry and vision cleared, she saw him and her eyes widened. "Oh," she said. "I thought you were a resort employee."
"No. I was just sitting here having coffee and enjoying the morning. Will you join me for a cup?" He motioned to the carafe in the center of the table, and the extra cup sitting beside it.
During the past three days, he had made sure she'd seen him a time or two. He had made a point of smiling and nodding, letting her get used to seeing him as just another resort guest, but this was the first time he'd actually spoken to her. He wondered if he'd misjudged the timing.
Glancing at the table, the woman hesitated for a moment, then shrugged lightly. "Sure. Why not?"
She snatched a short, white terry-cloth kimono from the back of a chair and belted herself into it. Reed was aware of a faint sense of regret. The maillot fit her so nicely. Oddly enough, she was just as intriguing when wrapped in terry cloth, her wet hair plastered to her head, her face free of makeup and glowing from her exercise.
"I'm Reed Hollander," he said, courteously holding a chair for her. "From Cleveland."
"Celia Carson," she replied, settling comfortably onto the colorful cushion of the wrought-iron chair. "From Percy. Arkansas," she added with a smile.
"Percy, Arkansas?" he repeated, as though he hadn't already known where she was from. "Is that anywhere near Little Rock?"
"An hour's drive north. Have you been to Little Rock?"
"No," he lied, thinking briefly of the two investigative trips he'd made to Arkansas in the past three months. "But I've heard it's a nice place to visit."
He was very good at that. Lying. He didn't even have to think about it much, anymore.
"I've never been to Cleveland, either. I haven't traveled much," she said, and he wondered if she was as skilled at deception as he was.
"Are you enjoying the resort?"
"It's a beautiful place. The staff is very nice."
He didn't bother to point out that she hadn't exactly answered his question. "Quiet this morning, isn't it?"
She glanced around them at the otherwise deserted pool area. "Very quiet. We seem to be the only ones who aren't sleeping the morning away."
"I don't know about you, but I'm having a hard time breaking that up-early-for-the-office routine."
She smiled. "Yes. So am I. This is my third day here and I still feel as though I should be doing something constructive with my time."
"I know the feeling. It must take awhile to get used to the life of the idle rich."
Celia tossed her dark, wet hair back over her shoulder and gave him a raised-eyebrow look. "So you're a working stiff, too?"
"Tax accountant," he replied with a faint sigh, as though aware that it wasn't the most interesting career in the world.
"I work in a bank. Assistant loan officer."
"Do you like your work?" he asked. He knew what she did for a living. Knew exactly how long she'd worked there. He wished he knew a few more details about her--like, just how involved was she with Damien Alexander?
Celia shrugged. "I like my work okay. It's a job, and it pays well enough, compared to the average salary in my hometown."
Reed poured them both a cup of coffee, handed hers to her, then lifted his own in a mock toast. "To all the working stiffs who had to punch a time clock this morning."
She smiled, and lifted her own cup. "Bless their little hearts," she added and took an appreciative sip of the steaming brew.
Satisfied that they'd gotten off to a good start, Reed set his cup down and leaned back in his chair. "This resort isn't my normal style of vacation," he admitted. "The trip was a birthday gift from my parents. They said they're trying to get me out of my usual boring routines."
"And what do you usually do on vacation?" Celia asked, probably just to be making casual conversation.
"I'm not sure," he confessed, a bit sheepishly. "I haven't had a vacation in so long I've sort of forgotten how." That part, at least, was the truth. "What about you?"
"I usually spend my vacations visiting my parents in St. Louis." She motioned around her. "This isn't my usual style, either. I'm here as a, umm, as a guest of the owner."
Reed lifted an eyebrow, feigning surprise. "Damien Alexander? You're a friend of his?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
Reed shookhis head and gave her a wry smile. "I'm a working stiff, remember? I don't usually mingle with the rich and famous. I've read about him, though, in the business and society pages."
He could have sworn Celia's cheeks pinkened, though she looked away too quickly for him to be quite sure. "He and I met through business," she explained. "We've become friends. I haven't even seen him since I arrived. He was called away for an emergency at one of his other resorts the same day I flew in."
There was a bit of a stammer in her explanation. A touch of self-consciousness, as if she were worried about what he might be thinking.
She was either a very talented actress, or nothing more than the quiet-living, small-town woman his background checks had indicated her to be. In which case, Reed rather pitied her. Alexander had a reputation for being attracted to innocent, unsophisticated young women. By the time he lost interest and moved on, they were neither innocent nor naive, though they were often considerably better off financially. Alexander had never been accused of not being generous with his... friends.
Reed wondered how far Alexander had already taken Celia Carson in her introduction to the fast-lane lifestyle. And then he reminded himself that it made no difference to him. All he wanted to know was how deeply involved Celia Carson was with Damien Alexander's less publicized financial dealings.
Celia didn't linger after finishing her coffee. She thanked him politely for the invitation, told him it had been very nice meeting him, and said she had a few calls to make. And then she turned and walked away.
Reed knew where she was going. To the luxurious suite she'd been provided, located directly across the hall from Alexander's own private rooms. Confident that she had never noticed him, Reed had watched her enter and leave that suite half-a-dozen times or more during the past three days. Always alone.
And the more he'd watched her, the more she'd fascinated him, despite his best efforts to view her as nothing more than another routine assignment. A handy tool for bringing down another dangerous, unconscionable crime organization, an organization Damien Alexander was suspected of masterminding.
He ran a hand through his short, dark hair in self-annoyance. Maybe it was time for a vacation, he found himself thinking. A real one.
Celia took a leisurely shower, blow-dried her shoulder-length hair, then dressed in a brightly colored, short-sleeved cotton jumpsuit with a heavy macram� belt. It felt odd to be wearing summer-weight clothing in November; back home, she'd be more comfortable in a sweater and wool slacks.
She slid her feet into leather sandals, slipped a chunky gold-link bracelet over her wrist, donned a pair of dangly gold earrings and touched her eyelids with taupe eye shadow and her lips with a deep rose gloss. And then she sat on the edge of her bed and wondered what she was supposed to do for the rest of the day.
It was just after 10:00 a.m. Between the softly billowing curtains at her Gulf-view window, she could see that the other resort guests had begun to stir. There were a few in the pool, four or five on the beach, a couple going into the restaurant for a late breakfast. Everyone seemed to be with someone else. Couples, families, friends. No one appeared to be vacationing alone. No one except her, of course, she thought with a wry sigh.
And Reed Hollander.
She thought of the man she'd met by the pool that morning. She'd seen him around the resort a couple of times during the past few days. He'd looked exactly like the accountant he'd claimed to be. His neatly pressed shirts and slacks and sober horn-rimmed glasses had looked odd in contrast to the usual resort uniform of T-shirts and baggy shorts.
He'd been attractive, in a rather ordinary way. Neat dark hair, intelligent-looking hazel eyes, a nice--if somewhat bland--smile. She'd thought at first that he was making a clumsy attempt at a pickup when he asked her to join him for coffee this morning, but he'd been nothing more than politely friendly. Just another self-proclaimed working stiff looking for a little companionship over coffee.
Another misfit among the idle rich.
The unbidden thought annoyed her. Okay, so this wasn't her usual style, she thought, looking around the exquisitely appointed suite in which she'd been staying for the past three days. Three lonely days.
She wasn't accustomed to bathtubs that seemed as big as a small swimming pool, or beds the size of the kitchen in her efficiency apartment. The suite Damien had provided for her consisted of the bedroom, with its huge bed, antique fainting couch, enormous old armoire converted to hold a TV, VCR and stereo, complete with a selection of popular videos and CDs; a huge, shamelessly decadent bathroom; a walk-in closet she could have parked her little red sports car in; and a sitting room furnished with antiques that looked so valuable she was almost afraid to touch them.
She certainly wasn't accustomed to having solicitous staff hovering at her elbow to cater to her every whim, as she was sure Damien had instructed them to do. She wasn't used to sleeping late, or waking with nothing more to do than to pamper herself. She couldn't quite grow comfortable with ordering anything she wanted from the restaurant's extensive menu--without even glancing at the price! Expensive little chocolates left on her pillow, fresh flowers delivered daily to her room, exotic fruits in fancy little baskets flanked by small bottles of champagne with names she couldn't even pronounce.
Just because she'd never lived this way before didn't mean she couldn't learn to like it. Eventually.
If only she had something to do to occupy her time. If only Damien hadn't been called away. Damien made quite an art of being charming and entertaining.
She was fully aware that Damien also made quite an art of seduction.
Which brought her right back to the "moral dilemma" she'd been battling ever since Damien had extended the invitation for her to be his guest at this resort.
If Damien hadn't been called away, would she have given in by now to his enticing smiles and skillful kisses? Would she have finally decided, once and for all, whether she wanted to become intimately involved with a man who'd kept the tabloid writers in a gleeful feeding frenzy for more than a decade now?
Celia liked Damien. She really did. Despite her older sister's reservations--based entirely on overblown tabloid gossip, since Rachel had never actually met Damien--Celia suspected that much of Damien's reputation had been exaggerated. Not all of it, of course. One had only to look into his wicked blue eyes to know that he had more experience with women than most men dreamed of.
And Celia was well aware that he hadn't gotten where he was by always being a "nice guy." Damien could be ruthless in business, thoughtless and sometimes arrogant in his personal life. But he wasn't the shameless heartbreaker or relentless de-baucher he'd so often been labeled. He'd been a perfect gentleman with her from the first time he'd taken her to dinner.
Rachel might not trust Damien, but Celia did, for the most part. She never would have accepted his invitation if she hadn't trusted him to not force her into anything she didn't want.
She had been so bored lately, so restless, so hungry for change and adventure in her depressingly routine existence. Still, it had taken her several weeks to decide whether to accept Damien's generous offer of a free vacation at this resort. He'd made it clear from the first that he expected to be here with her, as a companion, a guide--and a lover, if she'd agree. He hadn't been pushy about it, but he'd let her know that was what he hoped would happen. Celia had finally accepted, on the condition that he give her time after her arrival to decide if she wanted him as anything more than a good friend.
Of course, neither of them could have known that the question would turn out to be academic, at least for the first few days of her visit. Damien could hardly seduce her from a faraway island in the Caribbean.