Read Gaming for Keeps (Entangled Ever After) Online

Authors: Seleste deLaney

Tags: #spy, #one-night stand, #cosplay, #geek, #suspense, #secret identity, #Seleste deLaney, #convention, #role-playing games, #contemporary romance

Gaming for Keeps (Entangled Ever After) (2 page)

BOOK: Gaming for Keeps (Entangled Ever After)
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You tell Lohonas:
I hadn’t planned on going, and I’m not sure I can. And…this is going to sound dumb, but I’m afraid to meet you.

Lohonas tells You:
I didn’t think you were afraid of anything. I thought you were the girl who took on a nest of desert vipers on a dare. Naked as I recall.

Heat rose in Pen’s cheeks. It didn’t matter that he was talking about her character. In the gaming world, that was
her
.

You tell Lohonas:
Yep. You scare me more than death. I just don’t want the friendship we have to be tarnished by reality. Does that make sense?

It took him a long time to answer. Long enough that Pen had started to type an apology. Though she wasn’t sure exactly what she was supposed to be sorry for. Friendship was a good thing, right?

Lohonas tells You:
I get it. I’d like to say you have nothing to worry about, but there’s always a chance. How about this? You let me know if you’re going to be there, and if we happen to run into each other, fantastic. If not, it wasn’t meant to be.

You tell Lohonas:
Are you getting romantic or fatalistic? I can’t really tell with you. :P

Lohonas tells You:
Har-har. Well, if you decide to go, I have it on good authority that if you call the hotel, you can still get a room if you say you’re with the other convention—some banking thing.

You tell Lohonas:
I will definitely see what I can do. And who knows. Fate has made stranger things happen than you and me bumping into each other at a convention, right?

Lohonas tells You:
We found each other here among millions of people. So yeah, Darling, stranger things have happened. Crap. My boss is calling. Gotta go. Let me know what you decide.

You tell Lohonas:
Will do! And tell your boss to suck it. It’s WAY after hours.

Lohonas tells You:
Nah. I like my life, thanks. Talk to you soon.

You tell Lohonas:
Night!

And then he poofed—gone like she’d imagined him there in the first place. But she hadn’t, and all the conversation did was confirm that he’d thought about meeting her, too. Maybe his romantic/fatalistic attitude was the right one to take. First, though, she had to make arrangements to be in more or less the right place at the right time for destiny to take the reins.

Penelope danced her way through work for the rest of the week. One of the girls was looking for extra hours and offered to take her Friday, leaving her completely free for a four-day weekend of g
aming awesomeness. While she dug through her closet, she logged onto Megara and set her away-from-keyboard status to
AFK: Prepping for ConDamned!

She’d pulled up the convention agenda, and it seemed like what she needed most were comfortable clothes. A good thing, too, since she would have had to rush and go shopping otherwise. Jeans and yoga pants landed in her suitcase in a lump along with a slew of T-shirts, including one in binary that she’d had custom made shortly after she dumped Aaron. As she deserted the closet to go in search of underwear, she took a second to scroll through her chat screen. A whole lot of jealous, bitter people from the guild along with a couple “Have fun”s. There was only one message she bothered responding to.

Lohonas tells You:
You’re going? Well isn’t that just great. Now I have to be the guy wandering around asking every woman he sees if she’s you.

You tell Lohonas:
You will not!

Lohonas tells You:
Nah. I was serious about fate taking its course. No pressure.

Fate. Yeah, right. For a second there, she’d kind of liked the idea of him hunting for her through the crowds of people. It made her feel…wanted. Something more than a convenience.

You tell Lohonas:
If it matters, I’m hoping we find each other, but if not, you DID promise to take me cliff-diving off the coast of Barizanth again.

Lohonas tells You:
Yeah, well, if you leave me stranded all weekend, I might let you die this time.

You tell Lohonas: Really?
You’d take a girl out just to kill her? How very slasher movie villain of you.

Lohonas tells You:
You know I’m kidding. Are you planning on cosplaying this weekend or no?

The question pulled her up short. Of course there would be cosplaying, even if she skipped the whole masquerade bit. Her eyes darted to her closet. She hadn’t worn the outfit since that first Halloween with Aaron, but if there was ever a time…

You tell Lohonas:
Maybe. I’m bringing one outfit. Not sure if I’ll wear it or not.

Lohonas tells You:
LOL Well if you do and we’re not together at the time, make sure you take pics.

You tell Lohonas:
Like I’m going to send you pictures of me in costume? I don’t think so, Mister.

Lohonas tells You:
I have some of me dressed up around here somewhere. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

You tell Lohonas:
Do you ever *not* flirt? Wait. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know. If I end up with pics, I suppose we could swap.

Lohonas tells You:
First, you’re a chickenshit for backing out of that question. Second, sounds like a plan. If I don’t see you, make sure you don’t get into any trouble you can’t get out of.

You tell Lohonas:
And if I do see you?

Lohonas tells You:
Then we’ll get in trouble together and it’ll be a lot more fun.

You tell Lohonas:
Now THAT sounds like a plan. Have a great weekend either way.

Lohonas tells You:
Thanks. You, too!

Funny how one conversation with him could make her both giddy-happy and twitchy at the same time. She’d accused him of always flirting, but she was one to talk. Playing coy with the photos and all, and he barely seemed to give it a second thought. If it had been Aaron on the other end of the conversation with a girl, he would have made sure they did more than meet at the convention. Lohonas was totally willing to give Pen her space—like an actual nice guy, the kind who might stick around and not go chasing after the first pair of long legs in a short skirt. The kind who was just as much of a real-life romantic hero as his avatar was a battle hero. The kind worth getting to know. The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to meet him—at least just to say hi and see how things went.

But when she tried to say so, she got an offline message in response. He’d already camped, probably for the weekend. Damn. She tapped her nails on the desktop, debating her options. Then, before she could change her mind, she sent him another message—one he’d see when he logged in next.

You tell Lohonas (offline):
Do me a favor and look for me this weekend. I promise, if I hear someone asking for Megara, I’ll do Numfar’s dance of joy until you tackle me and make me stop.

She gave a curt nod, happy with her decision, and returned to packing. For the moment she ignored her underwear drawer and turned toward the closet, digging all the way to the back. Past her dingy white lab coat, past her Uhuru-era
Star Trek
outfit, and pulled out her wood elf costume. She’d knitted the “chain-mail” herself out of this incredible silver yarn. But under that…there wasn’t much—a leather bikini top and short leather kilt-style skirt.

Holding the hanger with her left hand, she chewed on her mouse nail. It wasn’t like she
had
to wear it just because she took it with her. And who knew? Maybe her in-game budding romance/friendship could turn into the real deal, and then she’d have this little—very little—number to show off in.

Show off, right. More like hide in the corner.

She threw the outfit on the bed and in seconds, her sword, scabbard, dagger, and boots joined it. No way was she going into her first potential dating situation since Aaron like a coward. Fate favored the bold and all that. At her lingerie drawer, she had to remind herself of the fact. Dropping the safe, boring beige panties back inside, she pulled out the lacy thong she’d bought for Valentine’s Day last year.

I’m so not that bold.

It went back in the drawer in favor of panties featuring Darth Vader, Hello Kitty, and one with a Bat’leth across her ass. She laid out the Iron Man ones for in the morning, since Lohonas had mentioned the Avenger in chats more than once. And then, as insurance for her boldness, she stashed a fifth of vodka in the suitcase, too. Hopefully it would be enough.

Worf padded in and nuzzled her hand. “Hey boy, ready for your walk? Tomorrow you have a date with Izzy at the kennel.” His tail started playing out-of-control metronome, and he hopped up, putting his paws on her chest. At least she didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving him. She swore some days that he loved being at the kennel more than he loved her.

Penelope forced the thought to the back of her mind as she grabbed his leash and clipped it on. The house was lonely enough most of the time without thinking her one constant companion didn’t want to be there. Besides, Worf always bowled her over when she picked him up. As long as he felt that way, she’d never really be alone.

“Even if nothing happens this weekend with Lohonas, it’ll be okay. You’re the only man I need in my life, buddy. Most of the others just don’t know how to treat a girl.”

He chuffed as they stepped outside, and the cool night air raised gooseflesh on her arms.

She never wondered why she dumped Aaron, but on occasion, she did wonder if she’d be better off spending less time playing Heroes and more time out in the real world. Game guys were so much less drama, though.

Contrary to her thoughts, she knew when they made it back home she’d crawl into bed alone with no one to drive the chill away.

 

Chapter Two

Hell’s Bells

“All our best intel says the meeting code
s are hidden som
ewhere in the convention program. And Greta confirms the location. We need to get someone on the inside.”

Cal shoved his dresser drawer shut and winced as the mirror rattled. Temper, temper… He held the phone away from his head and sucked in a breath to steady his emotions before responding to his boss. “I get that, Josh, but my concern is I haven’t been in the field since joining TRAIT. You said until I’m okayed for field work, I’m a code breaker and that’s it. Seems like you’d be the one pushing to have me decode the program from my hotel room and stay out of everything else. Or are you not my very conservative, safety-first boss?”

Cal’s fingers twitched around the phone, and he wondered if this was some sort of test. Josh Marron had plucked him from the damn gates outside Quantico when Cal had bailed on the FBI training program. Told him that the Tactical Response and Investigative Team wanted him even if the FBI didn’t. Sure, the FBI would have kept him for his computer skills and shoved him behind a desk for the rest of his life but, as much as Cal had scared himself, he knew that wasn’t the career he wanted. It’d only taken a heartbeat before he signed on with the misfits of the intelligence world, and he’d never looked back. Too bad the problems that plagued him at Quantico hadn’t disappeared with a change in venue.

For reasons no one could fully comprehend, Cal couldn’t handle violent situations. Or more accurately, he handled them too well. When his mind and body went into attack mode, he became blinded to everything but taking out his target. He’d put an instructor at Quantico into the hospital and likely would have killed him if Cal hadn’t been subdued first. Marron had been training with him since he joined TRAIT, and they
thought
things were becoming manageable. But they’d discussed a slow reintroduction to field work. Not running headfirst into a mission.

Cal stared at the suitcase lying open on his bed, costume pieces poking out from the depths. Besides, this was supposed to be his fucking vacation; he just wanted to go to ConDamned and relax. This last-minute mission and its inherent stress were killing his Zen.

“I’m now your fiscally conservative boss who’s being squeezed by the vise that is DC and can’t afford to send in a full team at this point. You’re ready, Cal. The whole reason for the slow and steady plan was to cross our Ts and put cute little smiley faces on the Is.”

Sighing, Cal checked his body paints and put them in his smaller bag along with sponges, brushes, glue, glitter, and sequins. He’d felt ready for a while, but all the controlled scenarios in the world couldn’t verify how he’d react in a real-world situation. The only way to know if he was safe to be in the field was to put him there. “So this is it, then? My big test? And if I fail?”

“You won’t fail. Besides, we need you. You’re a regular at the convention. No one will suspect you poking around, and, quite frankly, Trevor can’t pull off the gamer-geek. I don’t know how the hell you manage it, but he can’t. You won’t be totally alone; we’ll have him there doing some superhero thing. When the time comes, we’ll have a team move in to take them all down, but we need an insider to get
in
without raising red flags. There’s a decent chance you won’t even have to get your hands dirty unless you want to.”

Silence hung so heavy that another person would have thought the line disconnected. Cal knew better. Marron was waiting, and Cal hated him for it. Josh Marron, special agent in charge, was a great guy…when they were drinking and playing poker. They’d grown close with all the training, and it was hard to have his best friend as his boss. The man knew him too damn well.

The thing was, Cal wanted to get his hands dirty. He’d been itching to be in the field since that day outside Quantico—and Marron knew it, too—but with TRAIT’s new push toward cost-cutting, he wanted everything on the table up front. “And my vacation?”

“Way to hit a guy where it hurts, Burrows. You know we’re trying to trim the fat.” Marron paused, like he hoped Cal would cave. He should have known better. “Fine. You get your days back, plus the entire weekend becomes a business expense. You get to go on our dime. If you finish the job tomorrow night, you have the rest of the weekend all to yourself.”

Too bad he didn’t want it to himself, and worse, the person he wanted to spend it with was out of reach. The instant Megara said she was going, he’d made the decision to ask her out, regardless of how ridiculous it might be to base that on nothing more than their interaction in a role-playing game. For all he knew, Megara was a three-hundred-pound perpetual college student who lived in his parents’ basement.

Some part of him knew better, even if she had played coy about meeting. Everything about her, the way she played, the way she chatted, the way she always said thank you when he healed her or pulled agro or… Definitely female.

Too bad she sounded as if she’d been burned at least once meeting people online. He should have anticipated that. The fact anyone in his or her right mind ever risked hooking up with a virtual stranger said a lot about society. That so many times it ended badly said worse things. He wished there were some way to let Megara know he wasn’t a stalker or an ax-murderer, but he couldn’t even tell her where he worked. Secret agent sounded like such a great job title. Too bad reality tended to get in the way of the image.

Cal swept his hair back from his face, reminding himself once more that he needed to get it cut soon. It was already well beyond what his mother would call fit-for-public-viewing. Good thing he wasn’t going to Oklahoma for a visit until Thanksgiving.

Josh’s voice, heavy with exasperation, broke through his thoughts. “Hey, earth to whatever planet Calvin Burrows resides on these days. Are we good? You know what you need to do?”

“Yeah. Get the program. Break the code. Get with Trevor and formulate a plan of attack before the deal goes through.” Cal stuffed the costumes in his suitcase and zipped it shut. After stashing extra sponges for the body paint in his smaller bag, he closed that, too. “Bad guys locked up by tomorrow night, and then I can have my vacation time, paid for by the government. Honestly, though, I’m not sure what else you expect me to do on the con floor.”

“Christ, Cal. Make sure you stop by the field office tomorrow before you head to Condemned—I want to make sure we’re one-hundred percent here. That’s an order.”

He dragged the suitcases down the hall and propped them by the door. “It’s ConDamned.”

“What?”

“The convention where your mission is going to take place. It’s not Condemned, it’s ConDamned.”

“And that was clearly the most important part of this entire conversation. You’re lucky you’re so good at what you do. My office, tomorrow, nine a.m.”

“Yes, sir.” Cal hung up before Josh said anything else. This entire con was turning into one big clusterfuck. First he wouldn’t even get a chance with the girl, and now he was working, which had the potential to end in a whole lot of bloodshed. He could only hope any bloodletting was reserved for criminals and his role actually ended tomorrow. At least then he could get his game on and have some fun.

Too bad he knew things never worked out that way.
Nothing
ever happened the way it was supposed to. An image of his old instructor, broken and bloodied, shifted to a tiny, dark-haired wood elf rogue in a similar state. For the first time he wished Megara wasn’t going to ConDamned and kicked himself for asking her about it. The last thing he wanted was to be responsible for her getting hurt. He shoved the thought back into the hidey-hole in his brain where it belonged. Somewhere dark that he avoided visiting.

It wouldn’t stay tucked away, though, almost as if thinking of Meg brought home the certainty that
something
would go wrong on this mission. As much as Cal dreaded the idea of carrying a real weapon into a con, he refused to walk into this completely unarmed. He punched the pantry door once before stepping inside. When he’d eased it shut again, he pulled the spice rack off the wall and typed in the code for the safe hidden behind it.

With his history, he wasn’t sure he should even have the weapons. When TRAIT offered them, part of him considered saying no. Instead he hid the mini-arsenal where he could avoid seeing it until training. Or until he had to walk into a mission at a gamer convention where he had no clue what to expect.

He examined his cache for something that wouldn’t automatically grab anyone’s attention, passing by all the larger items without a thought. Not the Glock—if he needed a gun, things were beyond fucked, plus it was too obviously a weapon. Taser wasn’t trustworthy if things went to shit—not to mention it was only good for one target, and not if the bastard was handy with a sword or lightsaber.

Nodding, he pulled out his collapsible baton. He could fashion a costume weapon around it before he crashed, and he’d pack the duster with the deep inside pocket. Nice and easily concealed, since it would draw attention if he carried it. The other options could be disabled by con security, which would have made them useless for him. Nope, the baton was better.

Besides, as the FBI could attest, if he was going to have to fight his way out of something, up close and personal was Cal’s specialty.

The field office was the most nondescript building in the area. Cal was sure someone had thought that was a brilliant way to hide when they built it. Unfortunately, the
gray brick building with its gray shingles and low-maintenance green-only shrubbery stood out like Gandalf the Grey in the Emerald City. Even the doctors’ offices nearby had professionally landscaped frontages with flowers in a vivid array of color. At least someone, probably Marissa, had made the executive decision to repaint the field office’s doors and shutters a vibrant sky blue. He needed to make sure to mention the problem to Josh again. Flowers would soften things—a lot.

Cal climbed out of his car and sighed. He’d been examining the outside of the building for ten minutes. Time to go in and deal with the mission-that-wasn’t-supposed-to-be. In all his years attending sci-fi/fantasy/anime/gamer cons, he’d never contemplated just how perfect the setting was for arms dealing. People could carry in some really weird shit and, even if it looked like some kind of advanced weapon, no one would say anything beyond, “Is it peace-bonded?”

But if intel had Takamaki making a sale on the premises, TRAIT couldn’t dismiss the threat. Not to mention the terrorist had been known to make very public displays of new weapons. He’d left hundreds dead in at least a dozen cities around the world where he’d made sales. And now he’d targeted ConDamned. Whether Cal liked it or not, he knew the agency was right about him being the best man for the job. Nothing could have made that fact any clearer than the way Trevor brooded inside the office wearing skintight green latex. The towering man fell into step next to Cal on the way to Josh’s office.

“If they were willing to make me a black Green Lantern, why couldn’t they make me a black Wolverine?” He plucked at the costume, shifting his bulk uncomfortably as more than one of the women in the building cast him admiring glances. He averted his dark brown eyes to avoid making contact.

“Because you aren’t Hal Jordan. You’re John Stewart—another member of the Green Lantern Corps. People at ConDamned will know the difference. What you need to know is that you’re from Detroit, you tend toward belligerence a bit, and you have an issue with authority figures. Oh, and you’re a member of the Justice League, too.” Cal eyed him dubiously. No matter what Trevor did, he was going to stand out at ConDamned—kind of like the field office did in this neighborhood. Besides, he hated talking to people. “Actually, we’ll make it easy. Just go with brooding and ignore people.”

Trevor was a great guy—the kind you wanted to have your back. Most people took one look at his six-six frame and hulking professional wrestler build and ran the other way. Oddly enough, Trevor had multiple degrees and spoke more than a dozen languages with varying levels of fluency. Beyond when he had to translate for TRAIT, though, most people would never know because the guy embodied the whole strong and silent thing—mainly because he preferred “not to fucking talk to people”…ever. Trevor said what he needed to and that was it. Not exactly the kind of guy Cal wanted to hang out with after hours, but on the plus side, it made him easy to work with.

Case in point: he didn’t start arguing right now, just scrubbed at his face and ran his hand over his short black hair.

The door to Marron’s office stood open, so Cal didn’t bother knocking. Josh paced back and forth behind his mahogany desk, phone pressed to his ear, and waved them in. “Yes, sir. I have my best team on it already. Yes, sir. Of course.” As soon as he thumbed off his phone and slapped it on the desk, he turned to Cal. “Do
not
tell me you plan to fight me on this. It’s been confirmed; we aren’t just running on Greta’s say-so anymore. Takamaki is in town, and Trevor found reference in an old interview about how the sci-fi community had shunned Takamaki’s ideas when he was starting up. Looks like he never forgave them for it, even after he turned to making weapons. We still don’t know who he’s meeting, but he’s been spotted at the Hyatt. ConDamned is the target.”

Takamaki himself. Fuck. Cal had assumed it was a small deal and he’d be up against underlings, but if Takamaki was here, the man would surround himself with his best security. The pantry safe flashed through Cal’s mind, and he wished he’d brought everything. Hell, he debated asking Josh for an arsenal, but the same problems applied now as when he’d chosen the baton. Simple and easily pocketed or masked—and hope like hell Josh was right and they could put this case to sleep before things got messy.

He sucked in a breath and huffed it out. “Okay, give me the rundown on everything again.” And he swore to himself this time he’d actually pay attention.

 

 

BOOK: Gaming for Keeps (Entangled Ever After)
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