Agent Alan Hyatt stopped in front of the door to his temporary new home and blinked.
It was purple - bright neon purple.
And the knocker (Did people even use those anymore?) on the heavy, old fashioned door was a huge gothic monstrosity. A lion's head easily six inches wide and eight inches high with a big brass loop hanging from its snarling fangs. The house itself was a soft buttery yellow, the scrolling Victorian trim done in white, which in some alternate reality was probably considered a nice contrast to glaring purple.
The flowerbeds were filled with a plethora of wildflowers that added charm, if not sophistication to the property. It wasn't a showplace, but the large Victorian home was in good repair and it was obvious the owner had a lively, artistic bent. You could tell a lot about a person from the way they presented their home.
He, of course, knew even more, having read a file on said owner before embarking on this case.
Jillian Carlyle was an actor. From what appeared to be a typical middle class family, she'd left home at the age of seventeen for unspecified reasons, pursued a career in acting and actually succeeded at it. No mean feat. She wasn't currently in a long term relationship. In fact, there was no evidence she'd ever been in one.
But she wasn't a recluse by any stretch. She liked men and dated a lot. Though she managed to keep her name and face out of the tabloids for the most part. Another impressive feat. It was also borderline suspicious. The Old Man did not consider her a strong suspect, but someone working out of the Vancouver office for her television series' production company was using it as a cover for hi-tech espionage.
Alan was here to find out who and nail his (or her) ass to the wall. Not exactly the Old Man's words, but close enough.
Arrangements had been made for Alan to rent a room from Jillian primarily because all of her other renters were also connected to her film company in one way or another. That, along with his cover job as a freelance reporter doing a series on the Vancouver, B.C. film industry, gave him a better place to start his investigation than he usually got.
It was almost too easy.
Which worried him.
In his experience, anything that looked easy...wasn't.
Sure, the Old Man probably thought the assignment was going to be a piece of cake. He'd no doubt given it to Alan as the newest agent for The Goddard Project on the principle of easing him into his job. Not that Alan was exactly a neophyte. He'd been with the FBI for almost a decade before getting recruited by TGP.
A better kept secret than Roswell, the agency had been formed after the Germans during WWII stole rocketry science from an American inventor, Samuel Goddard. When the government had interrogated German prisoners, they were disgusted to discover that the technology they were trying to emulate originated with an American inventor they had basically dismissed as a crackpot.
Realizing that someone needed to oversee civilian technological development and make sure it did not end up in the wrong hands, they formed The Goddard Project. The agency had not been dismantled after the war, but was still going strong and sometimes even took cases that were related to government technological secrets.
They didn't step on other agency’s toes only because no one outside of the agency itself and some top government officials realized TGP even existed.
Alan had been excited when he'd been recruited and he wanted to prove that doing so had been a good idea. And instincts honed over the last decade were telling him that no matter how it appeared, this case wasn't going to be simple.
For one thing, he didn't know what kind of technology was being stolen and brokered. Only that someone at the production company was involved and that Preston, a known information broker, had something planned for December 15, less than a month away.
The lead had come from files found on Preston’s hard drive when TGP agents had busted his operation. The man had been cagey and paranoid, which meant that while they knew he'd been preparing to broker something big, they didn't know what that something was or if it came from the private or military sector.
Another issue with the case was that anything connected to the film industry made him jittery. He liked working in the shadows and there wasn't anything remotely shadowy about an industry that made its money entertaining millions of people twenty-four-seven. Living in a house filled with people connected directly to a television production company was bound to be interesting to say the least.
He was more than a little grateful his cover story had not included making him a member of the film community.
Comfortable with his surroundings, or not, Alan had what it took to get the job done. He always had. And he was ready to prove it. He looked for a doorbell ringer, but there didn't appear to be one, so he used the doorknocker. Three sure, staccato raps.
The door swung open to reveal a man of not quite average height and petite build. There was actually nothing average about him. His spiky hair was the color of a flamingo, golden eyes (obviously colored contacts) were rimmed with liner and the lids covered with a glittery shadow. Wearing a lavender velvet t-shirt and low slung hot pink jeans that couldn't be comfortable to walk in, he lounged against the doorjamb.
"Jill, sweetie, I think the new border is here," he called over his shoulder. "And he's hotter than the Friday night line-up during ratings week." Pursing his lips, the pink-haired man gave Alan a thorough once-over. "In fact, stations only dream of a line-up this hot."
Alan was thirty-four years old, a lifetime beyond blushing virginity. In his job with the FBI, he had seen and done things most people had never even heard about. But under the other man's frankly appreciative appraisal, the seasoned government agent felt heat surge into his cheeks.
"Down boy." A small, definitely feminine hand patted the crushed velvet encased chest, the rest of her body hidden behind the purple door. "You know the house rules."
"But Jill, he's yummy," whined the man, glossy lips settling in a pout.
"You think the postman's yummy too, Gavin, and he's not off limits."
"But look at that jawline. Like granite. Delish. He's got a cleft in his chin for goodness sake." Gavin fanned himself and winked at Alan. "And his eyes...they're gray. You know I have a weakness for gray eyes."
"And brown, and blue and let's not forget green..." The woman, no doubt Jillian
Carlyle, laughed. The sound was melodious and infectious and Alan found himself smiling in response. "Face it, sweetie, you're a push over for rugged looks and a great bod, but you know relationships rarely work when both people are in the business."
She thought he had a hot body? She must be looking through the crack in the door. He'd used that technique himself, but for some reason the knowledge the unseen woman with the sexy voice was watching him aroused him. Crap. He liked sex as much as the next man. Maybe more. But involuntary arousal wasn't something he'd had to deal with since college and it definitely had no place on the job. He ruthlessly tamped down the unexpected reaction until something she said registered.
Relationships. The woman had definitely said relationships. Jillian thought he was up for a relationship with a man? He knew Vancouver was known for being more open to alternate lifestyles, but wasn't this presuming a hell of a lot? Did he look gay? Hell no. No, he did not.
Okay. All right. Right. Barring men like the one in front of him, there wasn't a gay look, was there? And even that...well, wasn't there the whole metrosexual thing now? But he'd had friends tell them they had "gaydar", whatever that meant. He was setting off Gavin and Jillian's gaydar, maybe? No way, not happening. So, definitely not happening.
There had to be another explanation.
"He's not in the business. He's a reporter, you said." Gavin's tone was too damned hopeful.
That unfamiliar heat climbed up his throat again. Shit. Since when did he get embarrassed? It was time to take control of this situation.
"I'm not here for a relationship. I'm looking for a room," he growled, his sense of humor not quite up to laughing off the conversation, but not totally buried either.
There was something funny about this situation. He'd no doubt find it later. Maybe next year sometime.
Looking ecstatic, Gavin turned and grabbed Jillian's arm, the only part of her exposed to Alan's gaze. "Did you hear that? He growled."
Oh, for crying out loud.
A feminine sigh filled with exasperation sounded from the other side of the door. "Yes, I heard. I also heard that he already knows one of the house rules and you'd better remember it fast, or it won't be just the empty room I'm renting."
Despite the threat, she didn't sound angry and Gavin's moue of disappointment sans even the slightest fear of real retribution reflected it. With another sigh, Jillian tugged Gavin out of the doorway. The pink-haired man moved reluctantly to the side and Jillian took his place.
Alan Hyatt was a damn good agent. So, he'd read the file more than once and he'd studied pictures of the woman framed in the doorway.
Pictures which had hinted at the fire beneath the glossy exterior, but which had not prepared him for the impact Jillian
Carlyle would have in person. Unlike in the publicity shots provided with her file, her burnt red hair did not fall in sleek waves around a perfectly made-up face. Instead corkscrew curls bounced past her shoulders in haphazard fire. And without the make-up, fine freckles dusted her nose and cheekbones.
Her eyes were the same jewel green as in the publicity shots, but this close he could confirm that the deep color was natural, not the result of contact lenses. She wasn't dressed like she was in the photos either. Her current clothes were every bit as bright as the front door and as body hugging as Gavin's, but with much different impact to Alan's libido.
The woman was fine. Truly fine. And damned if that spark of mischief in her eyes didn't curl around his heart and squeeze.
"This is a bad idea." The words were out before he realized they were even in his mind, but he meant them.
He did not need to be attracted to a woman who might well prove to be key to his investigation. Sexual yes...he could do the sex thing. But he shouldn't be attracted. And that thing with his heart. So not on his list of things to do today, tomorrow, next week, or even next year.
He'd had his fill of civilians. Non-agency women. They were not for men like him. They ended up in love with someone else...or just not loving him enough to accept who he was, what he was. A fifth generation federal agent, his job was more than a career, it defined him as deeply as anything else his parents had taught him. If he was being honest, he'd have to say even more deeply than a lot of it.
Oblivious to his thoughts, Jillian laughed, the sound triggering another involuntary tilt of his lips. "Don't worry. Gavin gets over his crushes fast. He won't stalk you."
"Of course not. I'm not exactly a troll. I don't have to run after men to get a date." The velvet-clad man sniffed from his position beside Jillian. "Besides, I do know the house rules. No fraternizing with housemates."
"Right," she said firmly.
Gavin gave an exaggerated shiver. "That doesn't mean I can't appreciate beauty when I see it." Then with a last admiring glance at Alan, he flounced off.
Alan's sense of humor finally got the better of the bizarre situation and he burst out laughing.
Jillian put her hand right over his mouth and Alan's entire body went on alert while another surge of arousal shot through his groin. The scents of cinnamon and vanilla mixed with sweet femininity, teasing him.
"Shh...he'll hear you and think you're laughing at him."
Alan stifled his amusement but raised his brow in sardonic acknowledgment. He had been laughing at the little diva.
"It would hurt his feelings," Jillian said earnestly.
He pulled her hand from his mouth, involuntarily caressing her wrist before letting go. She had small bones and incredibly soft skin. He could feel her pulse speed up.
Her emerald eyes widened and she took a step back.
He followed her, leaning in close. "Maybe he needs to learn a little discretion...to save his feelings."
Jillian took another step backward, this one quicker than the first. Then she stopped and relaxed into a deliberately casual pose, blowing at a corkscrew curl that had fallen over one eye. "I keep telling him that, but he's just a flamboyant kind of guy."
Alan gave Jillian a friendly once over. "It looks to me like he's not the only one."
"Wha" Her eyes had gone wide again and she stumbled back another step and then her expression cleared. "Oh...uh...you mean the clothes."
"Yeah. So far, I haven't noticed you flirting outrageously."
"In the right element..." She shrugged. "But no, not here. Not with you, Mr. Johnson."
So, she adhered to her own house rules. That was a good thing, he told himself. And almost believed it.
She nodded once and then turned to lead him into the first room to the left off the entryway. When the house was built it was probably called the drawing room, but nothing so formal would work to label it now. A large sectional the color of eggplant covered most of two walls. The other chairs, if you wanted to call them that, were brightly colored bean bags. Huge throw pillows in aqua and orange were strewn over the sofa and dotted the hardwood floor as well. In the center of it all was a big square coffee table, the top a mosaic of tiny tiles in a swirling pattern the same colors found in the rest of the furniture.
Jillian sat at one end of the couch. "Believe it, or not, this is my camouflage," she said, waving her hand to indicate the tiny bright orange top and skintight neon green jeans she wore. "I've always played roles where I'm this really put together woman on screen who would never consider wearing day-glow orange."
Alan settled on the sofa, near its junction, leaving a full cushion to separate them. "I wouldn't think you'd need camouflage for your current role." He'd watched the pilot episode of Jillian's low budget series and she played an alien woman with cat like features.
Jillian reacted as if he'd sat right beside her and put his hand on her knee, jumping a little and laughing nervously.
"Are you all right?"
She sighed and laughed self-deprecatingly. "Yes, I'm fine. I'm not sure why I'm so jumpy today."
Alan leaned back and laid his arm along the sofa back. His fingertips were inches from the tantalizing woman before him.
Jillian eyed his hand and then deliberately flipped her long red curls over one shoulder. "Anyway, about the camouflage thing...they tame my hair for shooting and make-up alters my features a little, but you'd be surprised at how good fans are at looking past the flash."
"And that is bad?"
"I'm a pretty private person." Then she laughed. "I know, that sounds funny for a woman who makes her living performing for others, but that's different. When I'm working, it's in front of cameras, not a live audience. And I'm not sure I can explain it for someone not in the business, but that's me being paid to act like someone else. Not really revealing myself. But the rest of the time, I'm really me and that person prefers as little fan recognition as possible."
He weighed her words for fallacy, looking for anomalies and filing them away for future reference in case she was more, or less than she appeared. The fascination he felt was entirely job related.
"Wow, you know I can tell you're a reporter. You're so intent on me...what I'm saying, I mean. Maybe that explains the other..." She shook her head, her voice trailing off as if she'd been speaking to herself there at the last. "I'm um...surprised you're not taking notes."
"It's not an official interview."
"Oh, of course." She grinned. "I'm open to doing one if you want. I figured that was part of the reason you asked Bobby to recommend you for the room."
Bobby was the contact the agency had used to secure Alan's housing arrangements. He didn't know much more about the man than that, but it was okay. The recommendation had come as a favor to another friend who had agency ties. "He was doing my friend a favor."
"And that friend owed you one?"
"Or I owe him one now." He smiled.
She grinned back. "I get it."
"I'm not sure I do."
She looked confused.
"Get it. You say you're a private person, but you rent rooms in your house." He pointed at himself. "To strangers."
She wrinkled her nose and laughed a little. "Amanda says that's my repressed nurturing instincts. I like taking care of people, which doesn't mean I want to pick up your stuff all over the house." She frowned at him to let him know she meant it.
"No problem. I'm not a slob."
"It's a smart move financially too."
"Yep. I'm not exactly in Julia Roberts' pay scale." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "I don't even get my own trailer on the lot."
"I guess every production company has its own way of doing things."
"Not to mention budget restraints. I don't kid myself. Our show doesn't have the perks that those with a bigger production companies do. It isn't racking up the viewer points either, not enough to set the world on fire or get worldwide syndication. But it is steady work and the series got renewed for a second season."
If one of the primary people was involved in selling technological secrets, Jillian and a lot of other people were going to be out of work.
"Who's Amanda?" he asked, not dwelling on the possible negative ramifications of doing his job.
It came with the territory.
"My best friend." Jillian's voice had softened just a bit. "She got married three years ago to this really sexy techno-geek who just happens to be a multi-millionaire as well. She and Simon have got a gorgeous little girl too. Their marriage...the whole family bit...for them, it's the real deal."
Jillian sounded wistful and a little disbelieving.
"What kind of techno-geek is Simon?"
"He's Simon Brant...you know, Brant Computers?"
He did know and suddenly Jillian looked a lot more like a suspect than she had before. If Simon Brant's wife was her best friend, Jillian had access to some pretty important, not to mention cutting edge technological information.
"Do you visit them often?"
"Whenever I can. It's only about a four hour drive to the ferry for their island."
Alan's gut knotted. Not because Jillian was a suspect, but because he realized how much he hadn't wanted her to be.