book 2 in The Wells Brothers trilogy
Being a whistleblower takes guts. It can also leave you scarred.
Whistleblower Shea Winters bore the consequences of an act of honesty, now she makes a living running a scam with her brother’s help.
Security expert Aaron Wells investigated her, is intrigued by her, and can’t deny the attraction he feels for the pretty scammer.
But being a whistleblower can also have dangerous consequences.
Aaron strolled through the throng of guests that filled the big room. Their chatter clamoured in the air, the clink of glasses, the smell of dainty nibblies filling the air to fight with cloying perfume and heavy aftershave.
Women smiled at him, men gave him a tentative nod, and almost everyone unconsciously shifted out of his path as he progressed.
As always, he’d planned the security of this night carefully down to the finest detail. Elspeth Arkwell’s grand opening of the Willock Mansion Hotel had a list of the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers, even some politicians thrown into the mix, all brought in to marvel at the changes, the resurrection, and spread the word of how truly wonderful it all was.
Both outside and inside the hotel his men and women were situated, their attention keen, their dress unobtrusive so that they blended into the crowd, their usual Wells Security uniforms replaced with suits for the men, under-stated evening gowns for the women. They watched, listened, and none were the wiser that in their midst were highly trained people prepared to defend them at a second’s notice.
Every waiter, every waitress, every cleaner, every person who worked this night, Aaron had information on them all, files on his computer detailing every aspect of their police clearances, their lives, and he’d made sure not one of them posed a threat to those under his protection. It was what he’d been hired to provide, what he prided himself on delivering.
Which was why his attention was focussed on one woman. One woman he’d only known was attending at the last minute. He hated last minute information, liked having time to really investigate, even watch and study from afar for a time if uncertain.
He hadn’t had that luxury this time but he’d had enough time to find out she wasn’t a security threat. He’d also found out other things, but for what she was here for tonight it didn’t matter. Besides, his job only went so far, the rest was Elspeth’s decision.
As always, though, anyone moving towards a VIP was to be watched.
“She’s moving towards the Premier now.” Ryan’s cool voice came through Aaron’s ear bud.
“Got her in sight.” He moved closer, veered his path to cut across the woman’s.
“I’m moving in.” Like a shadow, Ryan slipped through the crowd, seemingly appearing from nowhere to move behind her.
“Steer her away.” Aaron’s voice was a whisper in the babble of so many louder voices, yet he knew Ryan would hear.
Hear and obey, as Aaron expected all his security team to do.
Gaze on the woman, Aaron spoke quietly. “Reports. Kennedy?”
“All quiet,” was the reply through the ear bud.
“Anything on the cameras?”
He spoke the name of each of the security personnel stationed inside, outside, in a back room monitoring cameras. Everything under control, no unknown intruders.
Satisfied but still on alert, Aaron drew nearer to the woman, watching as Ryan slid neatly in front of her.
She looked surprised before smiling up at Ryan. In keeping with his role of being unobtrusive, he smiled slightly back down at her and spoke softly. She nodded, gestured outwards. Ryan said something further and she laughed, head tilting back.
It was a full-on laugh, rich and deep, making several heads turn and people smile involuntarily.
Drawing to halt to one side of the big, open windows, automatically diminishing himself as a target by standing in front of a heavy drape of velvet curtain, Aaron took a sip from the champagne glass that held nothing but water as he glanced around.
Marietta, another security guard in a long, dark blue dress with a slit up one side to her very shapely thigh, drifted past, her gaze shifting among the crowd in seemingly idle interest as she sipped at a glass of Coke.
Aaron watched as Ryan and the woman parted ways. Ryan caught his gaze and turned in the opposite direction to disappear smoothly into the crowd.
Pausing near a table laden with trays of dainty finger food, the woman debated her choices.
Aaron debated her. Her head would come level with his chin, making her tall for an average woman. Thick brunette hair cascaded around her shoulders in swirls of loose waves. Small, straight nose, plump lips currently layered in dark red lipstick.
She turned to face him, holding a little plate with several dainty hot pastries on it, her eyes briefly catching his, and the colour was even more arresting than in the file photo. Whisky coloured. Amber. Enhanced by the dark eye shadow, the dramatic thickness of false eyelashes long and black framing the startling eye colour.
Beautiful made up, yes, but playing a part.
She shifted slightly, resting on one leg as she surveyed the party people. Aaron studied her, felt the ping of appreciation for her figure – lush, hour-glass curves making her, as one of his security team said when he’d first seen her, ‘bodacious’. No arguing that.
Just as there was no arguing the fact that her clothes did not fit in with the rest of the women’s expensive, elegant gowns and low necklines, nor did she dress as many would expect. No peasant blouse, no gypsy skirt, no jangling bangles, no colours that would pick her out of the crowd. Instead, she was dressed in a long, apricot-coloured gown that draped from her throat to just an inch or two above the floor. Over top she wore some kind of fitted lace tunic in lemon yellow with black lace at the ends of the elbow-length sleeves and hem that reached down to just around her knees. One bottom section of the lace tunic was gathered with a single black, silk rose. The only jewellery she wore were a pair of small, dangling topaz stone earrings that flashed briefly now and again through the thick tresses, and two rings on both hands. Even the rings were understated though the flash of the stones was clear when the light caught them.
Aaron would bet they were fake. As fake as the woman standing so quietly in the middle of the chattering, expensively dressed crowd. She looked almost old-fashioned, as though a woman at the turn of the century had stumbled through a hole in time. A quiet Yellow White-eye bird amongst the glitz and glamour of peacocks. It was a good look, making her stand out, giving her an air of respectability, made people trust her.
No, she didn’t dress as most people would expect. She didn’t stand out garishly, but her quietness and the way she dressed nevertheless drew the eye, the attention.
Stella Donahue – medium, clairvoyant, psychic – knew what she was doing.
Just as Aaron knew what she was doing. Just as he knew her real name.
As if just that second sensing his regard, she turned those whisky-coloured eyes in his direction and studied him in turn.
Just studied him while taking dainty bite after dainty bite of the pastry in one hand, boldly sweeping him with a slow, studious gaze, taking his measure in a practiced way.
He was more used to doing the studying, more used to putting both men and women off guard with his steady regard. The fact that she didn’t seem the least bit intimidated pulled at him, had him strolling with deceptive casualness through the throng while keeping his gaze locked onto hers.
With a faint air of amusement she watched him draw nearer until he finally stopped before her, one hand in the pocket of his slacks, the other loose by his side.
“Miss Donahue,” Aaron greeted quietly.
Licking the tips of her fingers daintily, she handed the now empty plate to a passing waiter. “Mr Wells.”
So, she knew who he was. “Divine knowledge?”
“Your reputation precedes you.”
“As does yours.”
“Looking for a reading, Mr Wells?”
Now standing so close, he caught a whiff of her perfume – light, flowery, the barest hint, enough to tantalise, enough to make a man lean forward a little to catch another whiff. Aaron didn’t lean forward.
“No,” Stella mused. “You’re not a man to believe in readings, to believe in things you cannot see or understand.”
Ah, so she sought to make him think she could understand him? He quirked one brow slightly in silent query, inviting her to say more.
She didn’t take the bait. Instead, rather than pluck a glass of champagne from a passing tray so she could fiddle with it and occupy her hands as most other people would when confronted with someone, she simply folded her hands lightly in front of her waist in a charming, old-fashioned gesture and met him gaze for gaze.
Fascinating. He’d never met anyone apart from his own father and Ryan who could look at him steadily while letting the silence pass between them without any hint of uneasiness.
Fraud or not, this almost exotically beautiful woman was standing before him with quiet confidence, her gaze level, a small smile playing around those plump red lips. And damned if that smile wasn’t amused. That piqued his interest even more, though he knew she was playing a part, a role, maintaining that mysterious air she cultivated so well.
It was almost disappointing, really.
No, definitely disappointing.
He glanced sideways as Elspeth Arkwell came up beside him, her hand sliding through the crook of his elbow as she beamed up at him.
The woman might look all fluff and feathers in her lace-layered gown and wispy up-do of hair, her eyes sparkling with life and fun, but deep inside that airy-fairy exterior beat the heart of a shrewd businesswoman and a no-nonsense female.
Well, no-nonsense except when it came to all things that went bump in the night, then Elspeth Arkwell was headfirst in right up to her eye-wateringly high heels.
“I see you’ve met our famous Stella Donahue.” Elspeth beamed up at the woman. “I do hope he’s being polite.”
“Very.” Stella’s eyes sparkled with amusement.
“He’s a dear, Stella, regardless of his exterior,” Elspeth confided. “But a bit of a non-believer.”
“A bit?” One dark brow arched. “Mr Wells is a complete non-believer.”
“See?” Elspeth slapped his arm lightly. “Stella knew instinctively. Isn’t that marvellous?”
“Yeah,” a voice echoed from behind him before Aaron could answer. “Isn’t that marvellous?” His brother appeared beside them, a glass of beer in one hand and a big grin on his dial as he looked from Stella to Aaron.
“Ah, Luke Wells.” She held out one hand.
Luke shook it carefully. “How’d you know?”
“Divine knowledge,” Elspeth echoed Aaron’s earlier words.
Luke’s eyebrows shot upwards.
“I’m afraid I can’t claim that.” Stella refolded her hands at her waist, her pose easy yet almost regal. “Your fiancée pointed you out to me earlier.”
“Ah, Mikki.” Luke nodded. “She told me you’re a clairvoyant or mind reader or something.”
Or something was right, Aaron thought.
“Psychic, medium and clairvoyant,” she replied.
Not what he would have said, but it wasn’t his job to say it, so he kept his mouth shut.
“Wow. That’s a lot of…er…things.”
“We all have many gifts, Mr Wells.”
“Geez, call me Luke. Mr Wells reminds me of my Dad or the stuffed-shirt here.” Luke jerked a thumb at Aaron.
Typical Luke. Not in the least bothered by his irrepressible younger brother, Aaron didn’t bat an eyelid. He was more interested in observing the beautiful scammer’s actions.
“I can’t wait for later tonight.” Elspeth was practically bouncing on the toes of her high-heeled sandals.
Stella smiled serenely. “I hope I can tell you what you wish to know.”
If Aaron had been the eye-rolling type, his would have been whirling in their sockets.
Luke was the eye-rolling type. Too polite to do it in front of her, he nevertheless couldn’t stop the grin that quirked his lips.
Elspeth frowned at him before looking back at Stella. “Don’t mind Luke. The boy’s got a good heart, its just his brain that’s in question.”
“Hey!” Luke said indignantly.
“Tell him something that will make him change his mind.”
“It’s not always an on-demand thing,” Stella responded. “Spirit talks to me when it will.”
Aaron just bet Spirit did, and that would be when she had enough time to think of a way to con some person.
“Of course.” Elspeth looked disappointed, but nodded.
“Is this spirit thing a male or female?” Luke queried.
“Spirit is neither and both.”
“It’s a hermaphrodite?”
Elspeth blinked. “What?”
“You know, has male and female…you know.” Luke’s cheeks reddened. “Parts.”
“I don’t think that’s something we should be asking, dear. It has no bearing on what it has to say.”
“No worries.” Stella suddenly angled her head as though hearing something, then, with a small laugh, she touched Luke’s arm. “Spirit said drinking your workman’s Iced Coffee when he wasn’t looking was amusing.”
Luke’s mouth fell open. “Wha…?”
“How the – that’s impossible!”
Delighted, Elspeth clapped her hands together. “Is it true? Did you?”
“Well yeah, but….” Totally perplexed, Luke looked at Aaron.
Aaron shook his head inwardly. The boy really was gullible. She’d probably seen Luke working on the park in the centre of the city, noted him do it. The park was easily seen by anyone. There was a reasonable explanation.
“That’s amazing,” Luke finally said.
“Stella is well-known for her accurate readings,” Elspeth confided. “It’s why I had her come tonight.”
Yes, for the readings she was going to conduct after the party finished. A private little reading session for Elspeth’s close friends which also included her just-as-gullible niece, Mikki. And apparently, Luke.
“Don’t forget to bring a spare chair,” Aaron murmured to him. “The room has only catered for those on the list.”
“I’m not going.”
Aaron just looked at him.
“I wasn’t thinking that at all.”
Like Aaron didn’t know his brother inside out. That slight flush in his cheeks was a dead giveaway.
Luke looked at Stella. “I wasn’t.”
Good grief. Expression neutral, Aaron mentally shook his head. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out. Anyone being told something they thought impossible to know would have a fleeting thought of sitting in on a reading even if they weren’t going to go through with it. It was a great hook.
“That’s Mikki’s area,” his brother announced, squaring his shoulders. “She’s the believer, not me.”
“You’re not a complete non-believer,” Stella said gently. “Deep inside you know you’ve seen something. When you were a child. Long ago.”
Talk about planting a seed. Aaron could just about see the gear sticks churning in Luke’s head as he tried to recall something that had never happened.
“It was night, you were asleep,” Stella continued softly, assurance in her tone. “But when you started to wake there was something…maybe near the wardrobe?”
Luke scratched his head. “I dreamed a lot of things when I was a kid.”
“Just think about it. Don’t stress. It’ll come to you.”
Luke looked at Aaron. “I never did like that wardrobe.”
That was true. Most kids went through a phase of ‘monster in the wardrobe’. Aaron had spent quite a few times going through little Luke’s wardrobe in the middle of the night ‘slaying’ the monsters.
“Mostly because the door wouldn’t shut,” Luke added. “Annoyed the crap out of me.”
“Maybe something was stopping it shutting,” Elspeth suggested.
Aaron switched his gaze to Stella. She was watching Luke, studying him, and then, as if feeling Aaron’s regard, she turned her attention to him.
“Now you,” she said. “You’re a true non-believer.”
That had already been established.
“Aaron isn’t impressed by anything,” Luke said. “Nothing fazes him, nothing scares him. In fact, he’s a bit freaky himself.” Realising how that sounded, he added hastily, “Not that I’m calling you that or anything.”
Stella gazed into Aaron’s eyes for several long seconds, a silence falling between them as Elspeth and Luke stopped talking to watch curiously.
Calmly, Aaron watched her watching him, wondering what she was going to try and spring on him, what she was going to attempt to impress him with.
When she took his hand it wasn’t completely unexpected. Actually, it was surprisingly nice, her palms, so much smaller than his, warm, smooth, with some faint calluses that spoke of hard work.
Her gaze shifted slightly, unfocussed as though seeing something else, and when she spoke her tone dropped, going huskier, sliding along his senses like warm honey as she took several steps forward until the warmth of her body and the faint flowery scent permeated his senses. Mere inches separated them. Tilting her head back so her gaze stayed on his, her faraway expression remained. “I’m sorry you lost your cat.”
“I don’t have one,” he replied calmly.
“You did. When you were a teenager. You missed him when he died.”
Now that was unexpected. How had she found that out?
“You should do it, you know.” Her gaze cleared, sharpened, focussed on his once more.
“Get the cat. The ginger one.”
Well, hello. His gaze intensified in turn, slid over the beautiful features before narrowing in on her eyes once more. “Should I?”
“In fact…” She smiled slightly. “A ginger cat will cross your path very soon.” As sudden as it appeared, her smile vanished. “No, not the ginger. The cat you should get is the grey tabby. Yes.” With a nod she stepped back and released his hand. “Get the grey tabby, Mr Wells. You won’t be sorry.”
Grey tabby? Now how the hell had she done that?
Outwardly calm, inwardly curious, Aaron studied her , trying to place if he’d seen her somewhere, anywhere. There was an explanation for what she’d said, what she’d revealed, how she’d known what he’d thought that day.
What he didn’t like was the fact that she knew something he didn’t – how she’d done it. That was a secret he meant to ferret out, and soon.
Luke stared at him. “Oh man! You did. You really did.”
Aaron glanced at him.
“You’ve been thinking of getting a cat!”
“Don’t go too far out on that limb, Luke. You’ll fall off.”
“You’re not denying it!”
“Or I’ll just push you off,” Aaron added mildly.
“Man oh man!” Delighted, Luke prodded him in the chest with a forefinger. “Stella read you! She is a mind reader!”
“Clairvoyant,” she corrected without batting an eyelid. Turning to Elspeth, she murmured, “If you’ll excuse me?”
“Of course.” Elspeth stepped aside.
With a gentle smile, Stella moved past.
As she drew level, Aaron was unable to miss her triumphant glance.
Oh yes, there was no denying it. Stella Donahue – medium, psychic, clairvoyant, fake – had played a trump card. But she didn’t know him that well.
He let her take several steps before swinging to move up behind her, catching her arm to pull her firmly but unobtrusively to a stop, stepping up close, so very close, his chest to her back, his thighs nudging behind hers, letting her feel his heat, his presence, the solidness of his body.
She stilled, didn’t pull away. She wasn’t a woman who liked to draw attention to herself unless it was on her terms, and then it was calculated, quiet, and guarded.
Placing his lips to her ear, he let his breath play around the soft tendrils of hair covering it before stating softly, “Touché, Miss Winters.”
If he hadn’t been pressed against her body he’d never have noticed the stiffening of her spine. It was her only betrayal of alarm.
Turning her head slightly, her cheek brushing his lips, she looked at him from the corner of her eye. “It’s Donahue.”
Voice pitched for her ears alone, his lips caressed that oh, so soft cheek. “You can fool everyone else, Shea Winters, but you can’t fool me.”
For several seconds they stood still, a couple amongst the swirl of colourful gowns, dark suits and babbling voices, a bubble of intensity surrounding them, cutting them off from everything but an awareness of each other.
And the secret that lay bare between them.
“You are mistaken,” she finally said and walked away.
He allowed it, his hand falling from her arm as he straightened to watch her walk into the crowd, swallowed from view by the people who fell back to cover her trail between them.
She might have been gone but he could still feel her – that curvy bottom against his groin, the warmth of her back against his chest, the silky hair that had clung to his chin, the smoothness of her skin against his lips.
It was a shame she was a scammer. If she hadn’t been he might have been interested in pursuing her, taking her out on a date, getting to know her.
Rolling her naked beneath him and sinking into all that lush, flowery-scented softness.
But scammers didn’t rate highly on his radar
copyright Angela Verdenius 2016