Devil in Disguise

By: Heather Huffman

PROLOGUE


CHRISTMAS EVE



RACHEL COOPER HAD NO INTENTION of putting a shirt back on over the red welts that mottled her skin, no matter what pictures ended up circulating the Internet because of it. That left her with two choices: drive two hours home in the worst snowfall of the season, which also meant forgoing her night in a choice hotel and tomorrow’s planned spa day, or face the embarrassment of checking into the Atlantic City Hotel and Casino in a white silk camisole with a wool-induced rash that made her look like a walking candy cane. Anything was better than friction at that moment.

The mohair sweater her mother had given her as a Christmas gift that afternoon was tossed in the back seat. Rachel had worn it to their awkward little family celebration at her mother’s insistence and had stripped it off the second she was out of her mother’s sight. An hour in the garment had left her in misery, and not even her ridiculously comfy alpaca sweater held appeal for her now, no matter how fiercely the snow outside was falling.

Her mind made up, she held her chin high, squared her shoulders, and pulled her little suitcase through the hotel lobby, hoping against hope that she’d find solitude in the elevator. From where she stood waiting for her ride to the penthouse, she could see the hustle of the adjoining casino.

Rachel barely cast a glance in the direction of the revelry, having never understood the draw of gambling. Instead, she stared intently at the elevator door to avoid accidental eye contact with anyone. It took half a beat for her mind to register who she saw in her periphery, looking gloriously out of place in the Atlantic City casino. Her heart began to pound; she was pretty sure she felt a panic attack coming on. She’d been certain he’d gone back to Louisiana long ago. There was no reason on earth for him to still be here.

A glutton for punishment, she couldn’t help sneaking a glance. Sure enough, Conrad Langston was there in all his unadulterated Native American beauty, though he’d changed since she’d seen him last. His long, neat hair was gone, replaced by a much shorter, clean-cut style. Rachel was torn between admiring the new look and being a little sad to see the old one gone. Either way, he was breathtaking. He was dressed in black; his sharp eyes were scanning the crowd in a way that led Rachel to believe he now belonged to the casino’s security team.

Of their own accord, her feet moved a step closer to him. Rachel stopped short, admonishing herself that even saying a simple hello to Conrad would bring nothing but trouble. Their time together had been brief, but two years after it ended she could still feel the heat from its flames.

Any hope of going unnoticed was crushed when his gaze caught hers. A smile broke across his face. Her heart skipped a beat, then made up for it by hammering double-time in her ears. Rachel thought she smiled but couldn’t be sure.

She hesitated, not wanting him to see her in her current state but not wanting to be rude either. With a sigh, she realized she had no other choice but to approach him.

His eyes raked across her inflamed skin before meeting her gaze. His smile dimmed.

“Did your mother give you another wool sweater or something?”

“Hello to you too,” she scowled at him.

“When are you going to tell her you’re allergic to wool?”

“I have told her. She insists true wool allergies are rare.”

“I mean, when will you refuse to put on the gift rather than torture yourself?”

“That would be cruel.”

Conrad let it drop. “It’s good to see you. In person, I mean. Television doesn’t do you justice.”

“It’s good to see you too. I like the hair.” Rachel couldn’t help greedily soaking in the sight of his face. She’d missed him more than she cared to admit.

At her acknowledgement of the change, he ran his hand self-consciously through the thick, dark locks. “It just seemed time for something different.”

Rachel watched him, wanting nothing more at that moment than to sink her own fingers in his hair.

“So are you here for the night to lick your wounds after Christmas with the family?” Conrad asked.

“Yes. I didn’t expect it to be quite so literally, though.” Rachel laughed softly. It was laugh or cry at the moment; she was sincerely hoping she could cling to the first option. “I didn’t realize you were still in Jersey.”

Conrad shrugged uncomfortably. “There wasn’t much for me back in Louisiana. Not sure where to head next. So I’m here.”

“What about Gabrielle? You could go to Arkansas to live near her.”

His reply was cut off by a voice coming through his headset. He acknowledged it then turned apologetically to Rachel. “I have to take care of this. It was good seeing you, though. You look great. Pink, but still great.”

“You too. Except the pink part.” Rachel winced, feeling like an idiot as soon as the words were out.

Conrad chuckled as he walked away. Rachel tried really hard not to stare after his retreating back. On the elevator ride to her floor, she tried even harder not to daydream about him–a task that would have been made easier if she didn’t know perfectly well just how good he looked without his shirt on.