The VIP Doubles Down
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“She’s trying to protect my fragile muse.”
“You’re lucky to have someone who worries about you,” Allie said.
He tried to read her face. It seemed so open, but he was beginning to wonder if she wore her country-girl persona as a mask. “You say that as though you don’t.”
“Could we please get back to your treatment? You need to lie down again.”
He wanted to be able to see her reactions. “This is my treatment. I haven’t thought about my aches and pains since we started talking.”
She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at him. “You won’t have any aches or pains if you let me work with you.”
Her stance pulled her therapist uniform tight, so he noticed the way her waist curved in before it met the generous swell of her hips. He traced the line of her body back upward to admire how the taut fabric of her shirt outlined the fullness of her breasts. She was a pretty little thing with her fiery hair and creamy skin. He wondered how many of her clients had tried to seduce her. The thought, coupled with her comment about his good luck in having Jane as a friend, made him frown. She had a feisty spirit, but she was evidently alone in a city that could devour the innocent.
He shouldn’t care, but he had been a country boy in the big, dangerous city once long ago. He shook off his unsolicited concern. “I’ll recline if you’ll tell me what stories you and your mother made up about Julian Best.” He started to lie down again but paused when he caught a flush of pink painting her cheeks. “Just what sort of tales were they?”
She shook her head, making that gleaming spill of red hair catch glints of light. “We thought Julian should find a good woman.”
He propped himself on his elbow. “He has Samantha Dubois.”
Allie gave a scornful snort. “She’s a manipulative, conniving double agent.”
“Julian knows that, but he chooses to be with her because she’s the only kind of woman who can survive in his world.”
“Well, she’s not the right person for him.” She dropped her hands to her sides, and he felt a pang of regret as the folds of navy fabric hid her curves again. “I’ll tell you more if you’ll lie down.”
“You drive a hard bargain,” he said, feeling the corners of his mouth twitch as he acknowledged the determined set of her jaw and shoulders. Feisty, indeed. He rolled onto his stomach and settled his head into the cushioned rest. “Staring at the floor isn’t nearly as much fun as watching you.”
He heard a little hitch in her breath and felt guilty. He shouldn’t flirt with her, given that he was half-undressed and she had to put her hands on his bare skin. He just couldn’t resist striking a few sparks off that redheaded temperament.
There was some rustling around before a tablet slid across the floor and into his line of sight. “Here’s something to look at, since you’re not sleeping.” Her tone was accusatory.
A succession of beautiful color photographs glowed on the screen: a cheetah crouched in dry grass, its eyes burning with hunger; a silvery waterfall cascaded over mossy rocks in a blindingly green forest; a sperm whale hurled itself into a brilliant blue sky, trailing sprays of seawater from its fins. “Did you curate these?”
“I picked the ones I like, but they’re all from National Geographic,” Allie said. “They have the world’s best photographers.”
He let the photos scroll by for a few moments more. “I notice there are no people.”
“People tend to feel less relaxed when another person is staring at them.”
“Do they teach you psychology in physical therapy school?”
“Of course. The mind-body connection is important.”
Her drawl lessened when she spoke about her occupation. He wondered which was more authentic: the accent or the lack of it.
The muffled thud of her footsteps sounded, and then he felt a waft of air and the featherlight brush of the blanket settling over his back again. He knew it was just part of her professional bag of tricks to keep her patient comfortable, but the gesture evoked nuances of caring that vibrated through him.
“Now tell me about Julian Best’s love life as analyzed by the Nichols women.”
Silence, and then the sound of a breath being drawn in. “Well, Mama and I decided that we wouldn’t want to get involved with James Bond, because his lovers always ended up dead. For someone who was so good at his job, he really stank at protecting anyone he loved.” Now her twang deepened, as did the conviction in her voice. She and her mama had clearly been spy-novel enthusiasts. “Plus, he was a sociopath. If someone got in his way, he killed them without any hesitation or regret.”
There was another pause. “I hope you don’t mind me comparing Julian Best to James Bond.”
“Bond was one of my inspirations, so how can I complain? I even gave Julian the same initials.”
“Do you think Robert Ludlum did the same thing with Jason Bourne? I’ve always wondered about that.”
“I did, too, but Ludlum died before I could ask him.” He let a smile sound in his voice.
“Inconsiderate of him,” she said.
He loved her dry edge, and his smile widened.
“Anyway,” she continued, “we always thought Julian was smarter than James Bond because he didn’t just shoot everyone who got in his way. He killed people only when he really had to. So he needed to figure out really fast who would have to be killed and who wouldn’t.”
“A thinking man’s James Bond,” he quoted.
“Some reviewer said that, didn’t they? It was on your book covers.”
“The New York Times reviewer.” He remembered the thrill of reading that praise. It had been his fourth Julian Best novel; the Times didn’t take him seriously until he was successful enough to be published in hardcover. He missed the days when a good review was cause for celebration, and a bad review made him think about what he needed to improve. In fact, he no longer read any reviews. Too many conflicting voices in his head didn’t help him write better books.
“So we figured he could find a way to protect a woman he truly loved. And we used to dream up stories of how he met her.”
“Let’s hear one.” His brain began to play with situations in which his super spy met the love of his life.