Excerpt Faking It (Close Quarters #1) by Stefanie London
Chapter One: Owen
I know it’s going to make me seem like a cruel bastard, but there isn’t much in this world that pleases me more than getting the drop on someone. The element of surprise is my catnip. I love the moment my target realises they’ve been duped. Maybe it’s because nobody ever expected a thing from me.
Who actually thinks the class clown will amount to something? No one.
So yeah, I like it when the tables are turned. Especially when my target comes in a five-foot-two-inch package filled to the brim with bristling indignation.
“No.” Miss Indignation shakes her head, a frizzy brown ponytail slapping her ears like she’s a puppy shaking off the water from an unwanted bath. “Can’t we pretend to be brother and sister?”
“I’m not sure which part of this meeting you misinterpreted as a negotiation, Anderson.” My old boss, Gary Smythe, raises a bushy silver eyebrow. “This is your first assignment as a detective. I thought you’d be champing at the bit.”
Hannah Anderson, now known as Detective Senior Constable Anderson, straightens her shoulders. “Yes, sir, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity—”
“Then I suggest you quit shaking your head like you’re trying to dislodge something.”
I snort and stifle the noise with a cough. Neither one of them buys it. We’re sitting in a meeting room at the Victoria Police headquarters. It feels strange to be back. I’d never planned on returning to Australia, let alone to my old job. But that’s life, right? The second you think you’ve got your shit together, fate punches you in the nuts.
“Yes, sir.” Hannah looks like she’s about to erupt. She clutches her coffee cup in a way that tells me she’s trying to mentally crush my skull.
Nice try, Anderson.
“Not exactly the warm welcome I was hoping for,” I chime in, returning her fiery glare with a cocky grin. If there’s one thing that makes Anderson blow her stack, it’s people who take life less seriously than she does.
Spoiler alert: that’s literally everyone.
“Shut up, Fletcher.” Gary takes a sip of his cappuccino. He’s drinking out of a mug that says “I like big busts and I cannot lie” with a picture of a pair of handcuffs beneath it. A white line of milk foam caps his Ned Flanders-style moustache. “If you want someone to fawn over you, then pay your grandmother a visit.”
“Will do, sir.”
Anderson rolls her eyes. If it’s not completely obvious at this point, she kind of hates me. Well, hate might be a strong word although she has said it before. It’s a weird kind of hate. The kind that feels prickly and cold but is really a front for a gooey centre of white-hot attraction. Yeah, she has the hots for me and she hates herself for it.
So I’m scoring another point in the bastard category, but that pleases me very much.
“We’re going undercover,” I say, leaning forward against the table and not even trying to hide my glee. “As man and wife.”
I swear she somehow manages to tell me to go fuck myself with her eyes. “Right.”
“We thought we’d put this to bed before you left.” Gary frowns.
He told me the pertinent details before I submitted my leave at Cobalt & Dane, the security company I work for in New York City. A folder with everything required for this undercover gig—ID for my new identity, keys and an access card for the apartment I’m going to call home for the next month, and surveillance info that’s been collected to date—is already in my backpack.
This is an evidence-gathering mission, in the hopes of convincing the higher-ups to put together a task force. And I’m going to enjoy the heck out of being cooped up with Anderson.
“So did I, Boss.” The name comes out of habit. Gary Smythe will always be “Boss” to me.
We’d cracked the old case before I left for New York. But organised crime is a tricky beast. You think you’ve cut off the snake’s head and suddenly it grows back. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that greed is unrelenting.
“It looks like one of the relatives took over the family business,” Gary continues. “We suspect they’re running the operation out of an apartment complex in South Melbourne. We’ve secured an apartment for you. You’ll move in on Monday morning and make friends with the neighbours.”
Easy as pie. I love making friends.
But I suspect Anderson might have trouble with that. Friendliness isn’t her strong suit.
“I want you two to get reacquainted. Finish your coffees and figure your shit out.” Gary pushes up from his seat, his belly straining against his navy uniform shirt. Today he’s in office dress—proper trousers instead of the tactical ones, and a black tie at his neck. Probably had a meeting with the big boss. “See if you can keep from killing each other.”
“Our reputation precedes us,” I say as Gary exits the meeting room, leaving me alone with my soon-to-be fake-wife.
“Your reputation proceeds you,” Anderson corrects me. “Mine is nice and quiet. The way I prefer it.”
“Always so argumentative.” I lean back in my chair and fold my arms over my chest. Unlike her, I’m not dressed in uniform since I’m here as a consultant.
They might be able to drag me back for a case, but I’m not signing any long-term contracts. I’ll do this job as a favour for my old boss. I like the guy. I don’t like the life I left behind. Too many demons. The second this job is over I’m getting my ass back to New York.
“Look, this is my first assignment as a detective,” she says, nailing me with her wide brown eyes. “And I know you have a penchant for wreaking havoc, but I will not let you screw this up. You might have left this life behind, but this job is important to me.”
Anderson is all spit and polish, just as I remember. Perfectly pressed shirt and slacks, neat ponytail. She’s clearly catching up on paperwork before her big move into a detective’s role. I bet she stayed up late last night shining her shoes.
“Message received, Anderson. No tomfoolery.”
“You should start calling me Hannah. Get into the habit so my surname doesn’t slip out in front of anyone while we’re on the job.” She sticks her thumb into her mouth to chew on a nail, but then thinks better of it and folds her hands in front of her. Outside the meeting room, people wander back and forth—some in uniform and others in civilian dress. “I wanted to keep our first names the same. Make it easier to remember. Although I still don’t see why we can’t be brother and sister. It seems ludicrous that anyone would think I’d marry you.”
“Oh yeah, speaking of which…” I dig my hand into my pocket and pull out a worn velvet box. Anderson’s eyes widen as I flip it open, showing her the old, ornate ring nestled inside.
The ring is legit. It belonged to my mother and since I’m never, ever getting married I’m pleased to use it for something. It wasn’t her engagement ring—that one lives with my grandmother. But my mother loved jewellery enough to have a personal jeweller on retainer when she was alive, so I wasn’t short on options for this fake proposal.
Fun fact: I don’t need to work. My parents were rich. Like, travel around the world on a private jet rich. Like fly in a bunch of diamonds straight from Antwerp rich.
Not that I want anything to do with the money. It’s been sitting in a bank account for the last fifteen years while my financial adviser plays with cryptocurrency like he’s got a great big pile of Monopoly money in front of him. I told him to pick the riskiest ones and not even think twice if he lost the lot. He didn’t, not by a long shot.
And for this job, I’m going to have to embrace the upper-crust lifestyle.
“You’ve got to start wearing this,” I say.
Anderson blinks. “This is not how the fairy tales led me to believe a proposal would happen.”
The gold band cradles an interesting stone in a smoky shade that’s somewhere between brown and grey, which is nicer than it sounds. It’s surrounded by tiny white diamonds that glimmer under the artificial lighting.
The ring is unusual and pretty, like Anderson.
“I guess I’m not doing it right.” Clearing my throat, I slide off my chair and drop down to one knee. “Detective Senior Constable Hannah Anderson, will you—”
“Fletcher!” she squeaks, and several people outside the meeting room snap their heads in our direction. She gives me a shove and I fall to one side, laughing and landing on my palm. She snatches the ring box out of my other hand and shoves it into her pocket. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“What? I thought I was being nice.”
She shakes her head as though I’m the biggest idiot this side of the Yarra. Which, to be fair, might be true. “Couldn’t you find one of those gumball machines and get me some crappy little trinket? I’m going to freak out wearing this.” She pats her hand over the pocket containing my mother’s ring. “This is…real.”
“Yeah, it is. Topaz or some shit. And we’re going to be tracking a band of jewellery thieves. Ever think of that? Might be good to have a sparkly conversation starter.”
Her expression tells me it was a good call but there’s no way in hell she’ll say it aloud. Anderson—sorry, Hannah—doesn’t like to admit when other people are right.
“We should meet early on Monday morning. I’ve arranged for Ridgeway to drive a van with some boxes to the apartment building.”
“What’s in the boxes?”
“Nothing much. Files and stuff. But we have to look like we’re moving in.”
I grin. “It’s a new adventure for us. Newlyweds getting their first place together. You’ll have to practice looking excited.”
“I don’t know if I have it in me,” she drawls. Then she stands. Even with me sitting and her standing, she doesn’t have much height on me. What did I call her back then? Pocket Rocket. “Monday morning. Seven a.m.”
“Seven?” I groan. “Who moves into a house that early?”
“People who are excited to be living together.” She picks up her coffee cup. I’m already imagining how strange it’s going to be to see my mother’s ring on her finger. For some reason, it doesn’t repulse me as much as it should. “Don’t be late.”
“Seven a.m. it is, my darling wife.”
She rolls her eyes again and I contemplate warning her that the wind might change. But this time I hold my tongue. I’ll have many hours ahead of me to drive her nuts. Gotta take the perks of the job wherever they come. I pull the file out of my backpack and scan the summary page containing the key details of our assignment. Seven a.m. at 21 Love Street, South Melbourne.
Love Street? Sounds like the perfect place for a fake marriage.