The girl in the slinky black dress and matching stiletto heels was perched on the edge of a high-backed bar stool at the far end of the bar. She was trying hard to blend in with the rest of the Thursday night crowd. Unfortunately, God had given her certain features that made blending inherently diffi cult.
Of course, the dress didn’t help either.
She fidgeted anxiously with the metal strap of her black designer clutch with one hand while the other fingered the ends of her lusciously long blond hair, twirling them around the tips of her fi ngers as if she were skillfully performing some type of lesser-known crocheting technique. It was the nervous habit of a girl who had blossomed late in life, never being able to fully develop the confi dence of those who had always been beautiful.
Whether or not she was really that girl was irrelevant. She played the part flawlessly.
With a despondent sigh, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small silver cell phone. Her fingers wrapped tightly around the helpless device, suffocating it mercilessly as she mustered enough courage to glance at the screen. The thought that a tiny envelope-shaped icon was her last and only hope for salvation struck her as ridiculous and sad, but at this point, she was clearly beyond naïve expectations.
The screen was blank.
Just as it had been five minutes ago and five minutes before that. The tiny icon that had promised to save her from the conclusion she feared most was defi antly absent.
After one final hopeful glance around the hotel bar, the girl in the black dress tossed the cell phone on top of the bar and reluctantly resigned herself to the idea that whoever was supposed to occupy the bar stool next to her was not going to show. She sighed and took a sip of her Pinot Noir, which until this moment of defeat had remained untouched.
It was becoming clearer with each passing moment that tonight she would be drinking alone. But certainly not by choice.
The man who had been watching this entire spectacle from across the hotel bar suddenly felt a surging rush of confidence. The girl in the black dress had intrigued him immensely. Not only because she was so strikingly beautiful . . . and blond (he had always had a secret thing for blondes), but because she seemed so lost. So fragile and endearingly powerless. It had been such a long time since he’d encountered someone of such beauty displaying such vulnerability out in the open.
It was, in all honesty . . . refreshing.
He eyed the empty bar stool next to her. Marveling at how an inanimate object could suddenly appear so welcoming. So inviting.
It was practically begging him to take it.
Everyone in the room was waiting for me to speak.
It was the only reason I had been brought here in the fi rst place. A messenger of words. A linguistic savior.
It was a title I had become familiar with in recent months.
The air was hot and sticky. An unusually muggy day for New York in late October, and the air-conditioning had seemingly given up trying to keep up hours ago. But truth be told, I wasn’t sure if the tiny beads of sweat on my forehead were due to the humidity in the room or the burden of my purpose here.
It would have been easier if I were completely impartial. Prepared to accept the inevitable outcome regardless of which side it landed on. But I couldn’t do that. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t not care.
The uniformed guard standing to my left finally spoke. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“I do,” I stated, keeping my gaze locked on a white marble statue situated in the back of the room. It was the only neutral thing here. Half of the people staring at me wanted nothing more than to see me fail. Watch me break apart and stumble for words. The other half were looking to me for salvation.
Neither was a comforting expectation.
But then again, it wasn’t their expectations I was worried about.
“You may be seated,” the bailiff informed me.
I sat down, trying to ignore the hard, splintery surface of the wooden chair beneath me.
There was a brief silence in the room, and I refused to make eye contact with anyone. Especially not him. The man in the light gray suit sitting diagonally to my left. The one with invisible laser beams shooting out of his eyeballs.
For the most part, I was used to it. It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself the direct target of a glare like that. Especially from someone occupying his seat.
The tall, redheaded woman in a knee-length pencil skirt and silk blouse stood up from the opposing table and made her way toward me. In her hand she held a yellow legal pad, which she referred to briefly before addressing me. “Can you please state for the record what it is you do?”
I nodded with practiced confidence and spoke in smooth, even tones, keeping my sentences brief, limited to no more than ten words. After doing this four or five times, brevity starts to become second nature. “I run an agency.”
“And what does this agency specialize in?” I cleared my throat. “We offer a service called a ‘fi delity inspection.’ ”
I heard a groan from the other side of the courtroom, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man in the gray suit roll his eyes. His lawyer quickly shot him a subtle yet warning glance.
“A fidelity inspection,” the female lawyer repeated. “Can you explain to the court what that is?”
I took a deep breath and spoke the same words that I repeated nearly every day. To anyone who entered my office in search of answers. “It’s an undercover test to determine whether or not the subject in question is capable of infi delity.”
“So,” the woman said, holding on to her legal pad with one hand and using the other to animate her words with large circular motions. “Basically you send out a decoy, or bait, in the form of a beautiful woman to see if a man will cheat on his wife?”
“Basically,” I replied.
She nodded, as if she were digesting this information for the fi rst time, even though I had already explained it to her numerous times over the past week. “I see,” she continued. “And can you tell me, was my client, Mrs. Langley”—she paused and pointed to the thin, harsh-looking woman sitting behind her—“one of your agency’s clients?”
I stole a quick glance in the direction of her fi nger. Mrs. Langley sat stony faced, her tightly pulled skin and high-arched eyebrows refusing to give up any emotion. She had the kind of unforgiving face that you expect to see on a headmistress at a strict boarding school, and I wondered if the plastic surgery had been intended that way. Maybe her job as the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation demanded nothing less than severity. Maybe she had found that a cruel, harsher beauty went further in this male-dominated world than the softer variety.
Her dark, serious eyes focused back on me with only a fl eeting hint of expectation. She wasn’t the kind of woman who willingly relied on others. Or if she did, she wasn’t the kind of woman who wanted people to know that. A spitting image of the person who had entered my office with poise and confidence only a few short months ago.
“Yes,” I replied, opening a glossy crimson folder on my lap and checking the notes inside. “Joy Langley hired the agency to test her
husband, Todd Langley, on June twenty-fourth of this year.”
“Why?” the lawyer asked simply.
I looked down again. “According to my notes from our initial meeting, Mrs. Langley was concerned about her husband’s ability to cope with the success of her rising career and feared that his feelings of inadequacy would lead him to stray.”
Mr. Langley snorted his disapproval and mumbled something that sounded like “Conceited bitch,” but I wasn’t close enough to confi rm.
Mrs. Langley’s lawyer continued as if she had either failed to hear the underhanded comment or simply chosen to ignore it. “So you sent out one of your associates to either prove or disprove her suspicions?”
I continued to sit tall in my seat, trying to keep movement to a minimum. I knew that the opposing counsel would be studying my body language for any signs of uncertainty. Any reason whatsoever to poke holes in my testimony or question my credibility. And I refused to allow an innocent slouch to sway the outcome of this case.
“Yes,” I replied.
The girl in the black cocktail dress downed the last of her red wine with one smooth gulp. The man who had just casually slid into the empty seat beside her watched out of the corner of his eye as she brought her glass down against the top of the bar with a purposeful clank.
“Thirsty?” he asked as a rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins.
He had never been as smooth as he would have liked in these kinds of situations. The James Bond–esque superhero who had championed similar scenarios in his head was nowhere to be seen now. And the real-life version of himself was decidedly less impressive.
She turned her head toward the stranger and flashed a disheartened grin. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Can I get you another?”
Her head fell into a grateful nod. “Yes, please. It’s an Estancia Pinot.”
At the mention of these words, the man’s face brightened. “Estancia? That’s my favorite vineyard.”
The girl nodded her enthusiastic agreement, or as enthusiastic as her self-pity party would allow her to get. “It’s all I drink.”
“Two glasses of the Estancia,” he announced to the bartender, pleased that this conversation seemed to be off to a smooth start. Then he turned back to the girl in the black dress, silently taking in the way her long golden hair seemed to fall in perfect waves around her shoulders. Almost as if it had been styled especially to his taste.
She immediately noticed him looking, and her mouth twisted into a blushing smile.
It melted him.
The wine arrived and they clinked glasses, toasting to something generic like health or good fortune or new acquaintances.
Silence quickly fell between them after the initial sip, a heavy silence filled with anticipation and the fear of rejection. But that’s the way it had to be. She could probably think of two dozen conversation starters that would easily put his fears to rest, but she wasn’t there to start conversations. She was there to follow them. Sometimes the hardest part is the not speaking. The quiet before the storm. The waiting. But she knew the process was designed that way for a reason.
And she also knew that it would probably only take another seven seconds before—
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked. His head bobbed back and forth, surveying the bar with only semi-genuine curiosity.
The girl sighed and fingered the stem of her wineglass as her eyes narrowed and her face sank into a practiced display of defeat. “I was waiting for someone, yes. My boyfriend. But I guess he’s not going to show up . . . ever again.”
“I’m sorry,” the man offered with a weak attempt at sincerity. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No, no, you’re fi ne,” she rushed to interrupt. “It’s probably better this way. He wasn’t right for me anyway.” She tossed in a sigh. “Or at least that’s what I’ll try to tell myself.”
“Were you together long?”
The girl in the black dress seemed to find unusual humor in this question, and she laughed quietly to herself. “Not really. Almost a month. Which is fairly typical of all my relationships. I mean, I guess it’s probably not even long enough to call him my ‘boyfriend.’ At least that’s what my friends tried to tell me. Lesson learned, right?” She pulled her wineglass toward her lips and sucked down another long gulp.
Never had there been a better opportunity for an introduction. And never had he been so eager to make one. “I’m Todd,” he said, reaching his hand out toward her. “Todd Langley.”
She shook it with a kind smile. “Keira Summers. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“So the entire eve ning is a setup?” The lawyer in the pencil skirt and silk blouse was all over the room now. Pacing back and forth in front of me as she spoke, as if she were running some sort of courtroom lap- a-thon to raise money for cancer research. “Nothing is real. The story she tells, the way she tells it, not even her name.”
I nodded, feeling somewhat accosted by the question but hiding it well. This was how it worked. How all of them worked. She interrogates my methods in an attempt to discredit my testimony, then when she fails to do so, the opposing counsel isn’t left with much else to do.
But even though I was familiar with the strategy, it still made me cringe slightly on the inside.
“Yes,” I asserted, dabbing at the moisture on my forehead with the tip of my finger. “The associate gives the subject a fake name and a pre-scripted story or background about herself based on what he is likely to respond to. It’s designed to facilitate conversation.”
“So you have multiple associates working for you at your agency?” she asked, stopping in front of me.
It was more of a statement than a question, as had been most of her inquiries, but I answered it anyway. “Yes,” I replied again. “Both women and men.”
“And men?” she repeated, slightly amused by my response.
I nodded. The truth was there was only one man who worked for me. As of right now, anyway. If demand increased, I would certainly hire more. But I preferred not to divulge any specifics about the inner workings of my business. After all, it was supposed to be an undercover establishment. Which was why the lawyer pacing in front of me had agreed not to divulge the name of the agency.
“Really?” she confirmed. “So husbands come to you requesting fi delity inspections as well?”
The opposing counsel flashed an aggravated look and raised his hand in the air. “Objection. What’s the relevance of this?”
Mrs. Langley’s lawyer addressed the gray-haired female judge who sat directly to my right. “I’m only trying to establish the witness as a nonbiased party whose company offers support to both genders equally.”
The judge nodded in reply. “Overruled. You may continue.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” She turned back to me, not bothering to repeat the question, just waiting for me to respond.
“Yes,” I stated. “I’ve had several husbands hire us to test their wives.”
“And you’ve also testified at some of the resulting divorce proceedings as well, am I right?”
I didn’t approve of her use of the words resulting divorce proceedings. As if my agency alone were responsible for the divorce rate in this country. It’s true most of these couples would still be together had their husbands or wives not failed the fi delity inspection, but I liked to think of it more as “awakening” people to the truth rather than “inspiring” divorce.
Of course, I didn’t voice my opinion on her word choice. I simply responded, “Yes.”
“And what is your role in these inspections?”
“I meet with the client, gather all the details, then I assign the case to the associate I feel is best equipped to handle it.”
Mrs. Langley’s lawyer set her legal pad on the table so that she could now use both hands to animate the intricacy of her next statement/ question. “So in other words, you match each subject, in this case Mr.
Langley, with his ideal . . . fantasy.”
I shrugged. “I guess you could put it that way.”
“Yes or no,” she prompted me in return.
I paused, looking fleetingly around the courtroom, my eyes falling upon the empty jury box. I immediately wondered what twelve of my so-called peers would have thought about what I was about to say. Would they have judged me for it? Or would they have respected me because I was genuinely trying to help people? The same way I was trying to help Mrs. Langley today, in this humid, air-conditioningforsaken courtroom in Westchester County.
“Uh- huh.” Mrs. Langley’s lawyer picked up her ballpoint pen and began using it as a prop to enumerate the points in her next sentences. “So, Mrs. Langley comes into your office, tells you that she’s worried about her husband’s behavior on business trips, you choose the associate that you feel best fits his ideal woman, then she meets him in a hotel bar in Seattle, tells him her name is something that it’s not, strikes up a conversation with him based on made-up facts that he is likely to respond to, and waits to see if he’ll cheat on his wife with her.”
“It’s actually an intention to cheat that we test for, not—”
The woman flashed me a look that urged me to just say yes so that we could move on.
She contorted her face into a disgusted expression and let out a small snort. “But isn’t that entrapment?”
“Objection, Your Honor,” Mr. Langley’s lawyer cut in again. “Leading the witness. She’s trying to discredit my argument.”
“I’m just asking the question that I think everyone in this courtroom is dying to know the answer to,” Mrs. Langley’s lawyer argued calmly.
I looked anxiously to the judge sitting next to me. She appeared completely immersed in this interrogation. “Overruled,” she decided after a moment of deliberation. Then she turned to me. “You may answer the question.”
I exhaled quietly, relieved that this particu lar question would not be left hanging in judicial limbo. “It’s not entrapment,” I stated in an unwavering tone. This was an issue I took very seriously. There’s a fine line between inspecting someone and entrapping, and I took all precautions to make sure my business remained on the right side of it. “My employees are given explicit instructions to follow, not lead,” I continued. “As was the case with Mr. Langley, the associate was not allowed to initiate anything. Any and all suggestions of further intimacy were left solely to his discretion.” By the end of my sentence, I realized that my voice had started to sound somewhat defensive.
I paused and took a deep breath, reminding myself not to get too worked up. I had a tendency to do that when someone brought up the E-word. Let’s just say it was a sore spot. “In other words,” I began, calmer and more in control, “Mr. Langley made a conscious choice to cheat on his wife. He did not fall victim to a trap.”
Two hours had passed since Todd Langley first sat on the bar stool next to the beautiful and delicate Keira Summers. They had covered every topic from religion to politics to pop icons. He now sat close enough to touch the bare skin of her arm or shoulder with just the slightest reach. And he had touched it. Numerous times. Nearly every sixty seconds for the past hour, in fact. Every joke, every shared opinion, every seemingly genuine connection, had, in his mind, been grounds for another fleeting contact with her soft, flawless skin. He simply couldn’t get enough of it.
And the fact that Keira hadn’t seemed to mind in the least only fueled his resolve to touch her again.
Todd motioned toward the bartender and ordered another two glasses of Pinot Noir, but Keira quickly interrupted him with a slightly intoxicated giggle and said, “Actually, I think I’ve had enough.” She checked her watch. “Plus, it’s getting kinda late.”
In reality, she could have easily drunk twice as much as she had and still managed to successfully convince a police offi cer that she’d
Excerpted from Love Under Cover by Jessica Brody.
Copyright © 2009 by Jessica Brody.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
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