Chapter One

A Request for Tina

Christina Witten placed the final double red lines at the end of the last column on her accounting exam. She flipped her test booklet to the front to make sure that her student information was correct and then she gathered her things together. She felt a certain amount of relief as she saw that she was not the first person to finish the exam and not anywhere near the last. It was comfortable for her to finish sometime in the middle. All the numbers matched, so it had to be good enough. She turned in her exam, swung her bag over her shoulder and headed for the door.

Ah, she was relieved! This test had been an important one. The last one in April – end game. Once she got her (hopefully) good grades back, she'd have her diploma in office assistance and she could quit living her secret life. Not many girls lived a secret life, but if anyone back home heard that she'd been working for an escort service, that would be the end of her freedom. She knew for certain that her parents would pitch a fit and she'd be back in her home town pumping gas before she could say one word in her defense.

It hadn't been Christina's idea to work for an escort service. Well, it hadn't been her idea in the first place, but when her cousin Mindy showed her how much money could be made by being the shiny little woman on a boring man's arm for one evening … poor little Christina had to cave. Her pockets were worn thin and money was something she needed.

It was all because of her own stupidity that she was short on cash. She was the one who told her parents that she'd have enough money to leave her small town and move to faraway Edmonton. It didn't matter how far away she went, they didn't have any money to help her even if she lived next door, but she wasn't worried. She could take care of everything. She always planned to get a part-time job to help support herself while she went to school, but then she'd been late turning in a form to request a grant and even later with her application for a scholarship. In the end, it didn't seem to matter how many dishes she washed at the local pub, there was barely enough money to pay the rent as well as her tuition. Feeding herself was becoming a problem, too, and though Christina didn't like to say it – she'd already maxed her credit card buying food and those expensive text books.

She often wondered if she should have told Mindy about her money problems before they got out of hand, but Mindy was very different from her and the only reason why her parents had allowed her move to Edmonton in the first place. Christina had to live with responsible Mindy who was making a killing at her job … which was? Christina was very suspicious. Mindy was hardly ever home in the evenings and wherever she went, she dolled up like a celebrity getting ready for the red carpet. What could she be doing? At first, Mindy blubbered something about networking. She didn't give any details about her career until Christina broke down and explained that she was fifty dollars short on her half of the rent that month. She'd been killing herself at work for three months by this point and she thought that Mindy would understand if she was a little late.

Mindy looked at the money and then at Christina before she said, "Your arms looked chapped. Do you want to make some money at something that doesn't involve elbow-deep boiling water?"

"But that's my job," Christina responded dully, almost on the point of tears.

"It doesn't have to be," Mindy said, dropping the bills Christina gave her on the table like they were nothing. She clicked over to the refrigerator in her high heels and took out a can of tonic water, which she opened noisily before leaning against the wall of their apartment like she was marketing the stuff. "I could take you to work with me, and you'd earn enough to pay your tuition for next semester in a couple weeks, especially since Christmas is coming up. You see, I'm actually—"

"A hooker?" Christina filled in for her.

"Escort!" Mindy emphasized. Then she shrugged her shoulders. "It's not even that bad."

"So, you don't sleep with them?"

"My clients? Ew! No," Mindy said, looking repulsed. "Not in a million years. But I do go on dates with guys who need a date for something and don't have the time or the inclination to find a date for themselves. Sometimes, it's because they're shy. Sometimes, it's because they want to make a girl who's pissed them off burn with envy. Sometimes, it's because they're visiting the city and want someone to show them around with a little more intimacy than a touring bus. Stuff like that. Very often I am introduced as their cousin." Mindy explained before she bluntly asked Christina, "Well, do you want to try it?"

"No sex?" Christina asked anxiously.

"Zero sex. I promise. I'll give you pepper spray and a pair of brass knuckles. Want to give it a try?"
"Aren't both of those illegal?"

"Probably," Mindy said noncommittally. "I've never been attacked. My agency's really good. That sort of thing just doesn't happen."

"I'll think about it," Christina said.

"Do," Mindy said. "Do."

So, Christina thought about it. There really wasn't much of a choice. She didn't have enough money to pay the tuition for the next semester and it would be due in mere weeks. If it was possible for her to earn that money in three weeks then she could quit and go back to washing dishes at the end, but she had to have the money or she'd have to drop out of her program and go back home. That would be too humiliating. On the other hand, could she really be an escort?

Christina honestly thought about Mindy and how she compared with her. Mindy was shorter than Christina, unless she was wearing battle gear. When dressed for work, Mindy wore ten centimeter heels. She was tanned and pierced and tattooed in all the right places and Christina was simply nothing like her.

Christina didn't even have long, pretty hair. It was of that unfortunately colour that was neither blonde nor brown, and to top it off, it was cropped so short that it was almost boyish. She had no figure to speak of. She was pale and … ordinary. Couldn't a guy get a girl like her anywhere?

"Don't you think I'm plain?" Christina asked when Mindy came to ask her if she'd made up her mind.

"Plain?" Mindy asked skeptically. "Plain? What do you mean? If you think you're ugly, think again. It's true; you need help, but nothing that can't be solved with makeup and a little extra attention. Basically, if you give me permission to do whatever it takes to bring you up to snuff, you'll look like a fox promptly."


Mindy snuffed and then answered, "Everything is fake anyway."

"No one is naturally beautiful?"

Mindy rolled her eyes and said caustically, "Even Cinderella needed a glass shoe."

"Then I'll do it," Christina said. She was too desperate to pay her bills to think rationally.

"Okay then. You asked for it," Mindy said, picking up her car keys and heading for the door.

Mindy took Christina to her agency where she introduced her to the boss and told her they could use her for the busy season. No one wanted to be alone around Christmas time, so there was always more than enough work. The woman in charge didn't seem very interested in Christina, but assigned her the working name of 'Tina' and told her she'd work with Mindy the first few times just to make sure she was trained properly. Then Mindy took her to the back for her makeover.

The first thing Mindy did once they were alone was pierce Christina's ears. She'd never had it done and it felt like her head was going to explode it hurt so much.

Mindy groaned when Christina whined. "Look, I'm not going to brand you. It's a miracle you managed to make it to nineteen without having it done anyway. This isn't a big deal."

But, it didn't matter what Mindy said, Christina still felt sore as Mindy busily gave her a facial, manicure, pedicure, plucked her eyebrows and did her makeup.

When Mindy finally left her alone, she felt sure she'd made the wrong choice. Beauty was too painful for her. She didn't want to be beautiful this much. She even considered bolting … but she did need the money this much. Ugh! She'd endure it.

Mindy brought her back a long honey coloured wig and plopped it on her head happily.

"It's great that your hair is so short. This way we can do whatever we want with you," she said with smile. "You're going to be super hot."

All in all, by the time Mindy was truly finished with Christina she was living a double life. By day, she was mild mannered college student Christina Witten and by evening she was Tina, an extremely beautiful and elusive escort who would never be seen past Christmas.

Or so she thought.

Mindy was right. Christmas was busy. She went to six office Christmas parties, three charity auctions, one ball, two shopping excursions, a dinner party, and a performance of 'The Nut Cracker'. By boxing day, her first day off, she looked at how much money she'd earned dating interesting men, and she was still four hundred dollars short on tuition, not to mention January's rent, and additional expenses. She crunched the notice in her hand and knew exactly what that meant. She would have to work New Year's Eve. And who would be her partner for that evening?

So far, the guys she'd dated hadn't seemed that bad. Most of them were in their twenties or thirties. They didn't have wives and weren't likely to. They had just gotten in the habit of phoning for a date when one of these once-a-year awkward occasions came up. Some were more embarrassed than others, but she worked hard to make them all feel like she saw them as real people instead of just a customer. One of them even phoned and requested her again. Mindy thought that was great and gave Christina smiles and cheek pinches to congratulate her on her first return client.

When the end of the night came with one of these men, they'd call a cab for her and put her in it without asking for so much as a hug. More than one of them had even told her that she was much too good a girl to be working as an escort and she'd be better off giving it up.

But by Boxing Day, she hadn't earned enough money and she'd have to work New Year's Eve – terrifying.

Mindy's words still haunted her. "New Year's Eve," she said with a wink. "Everybody's date gets a kiss on New Year's Eve. Don't even think of trying to skip out."

Christina gulped. If she worked that night, she'd definitely have to kiss her date!

Christina popped her purple bubblegum and tried to work out some of the tension in her back. Tonight was the dreaded night – New Year's Eve. Rats! Tonight, she was dressed like two billion dollars. Her dress was deep red, the colour of the season, and she was wearing a long black coat with fur trimming Mindy that had leant her for the occasion. All her clothes were borrowed from Mindy, except for the inserts in her bra – those were a gift. To match with the feeling of the season, Christina was wearing long dangling earrings with rhinestones inset in them and a choker to match. The wrap she would wear once the coat was hung up was black with deep red blossoms scattered across it in a gorgeous array. Christina thought it was prettier than the dress. The wig she wore that night was sandy blonde with bangs that fell slightly into her eyes.

That night she was supposed to meet a Mr. Mark Lewis in the lobby of the Grand Mortion Hotel – downtown – uptown – a really good part of town. There was a party there in one of the ballrooms and she was his insurance that he wouldn't be going stag to the biggest party of the year.

She pushed through the revolving doors just before eight o'clock hoping she'd find him quickly. She was supposed to wait by the courtesy phone in the lobby. This part wasn't a big deal. She'd been meeting men like this all along. Even though she hadn't been doing this for very long, she felt like a seasoned professional. The reason sweat was forming in the space between her shoulder blades was that she couldn't stop thinking about the cold fact that she was going to have to kiss her date at the end of the night. Of course Mindy was right. Having someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight was the whole purpose of hiring an escort on New Year's Eve. It was socially embarrassing to have no one to kiss. Christina just needed to pull herself together. She'd been kissed before. Lots of times … she thought.

She rolled her eyes and looked around her for a place to spit her gum before her date got there. But she was so nervous that she accidentally started to blow another bubble.

"Looking for something?" a deep male voice said coolly.

Christina's gum bubble deflated as her eyes met those of one of the most handsome men she ever seen. Christina didn't even get a chance to examine him closely when she realized that he was holding a silver dust bin in his hand, poised to catch her gum.

Christina reached into her pocket and quickly pulled out a tissue. There was no way this guy was her date, but her date was probably here by now and she didn't want him to see her spit a wad of purple bubble gum directly into a waste bin. She already felt like she'd accidentally tripped while coming out of the trailer in this high class hotel. She rolled her gum up in the Kleenex and dropped it into the bin.

"Thank you," she said, trying to cool her cheeks and manage some sort of composure. Then she moved away and stood closer to the courtesy phone. She leaned against the pillar the phone was bolted to and tried to look for her date.

But the guy with the trash can wasn't leaving. He set the bin down near a chair, came around, and leaned against the pillar beside her. "Was your gum grape or raison flavoured?"

"Those are the same," Christina said, still scanning the room and not looking at the man next to her. "It just depends on whether the French side of the package is showing."

He laughed. "Are you waiting for somebody?" he asked, flirting.

"I have a date tonight," she responded.

"Is he handsome?"


"Your date," he answered, chuckling.

Christina looked around nervously. She had never seen her date. How was she supposed to answer this guy? He was clearly playing with her. If she said her date was gorgeous, she'd be in trouble when the short bald guy rolled in. After scrambling for a moment, she answered, "I like the way he looks."

"Hmm," the brown-eyed stranger said, as he suddenly turned around the corner and put his arm by her shoulder, nearly pinning her against the pillar. "And you're friendly with him no doubt?"

She nodded and said testily, "That's why you shouldn't be putting the moves on me."

"Mark!" someone suddenly called from the other end of the lobby. It was a silver tinkling voice, exactly like the sound of Christmas ornaments jingling.

Christina turned her head to see who called her date's first name, when suddenly the stranger in front of her had closed in and was whispering, "Sorry for the late introduction. I'm Mark and I'm guessing that you're my date. Tina? Am I right?"

"Yeah," Christina breathed, very much aware of the cologne he was wearing. Breathing that in was a new sensation. What on earth was he wearing? But Christina still had the presence of mind to say, "But you're not behaving very well. Do you have to stand that close to me?"

"I need you to help me with a little problem," he said, taking her hand in his and leading her towards the woman who had called to him. He held onto her hand and introduced her to a ravishing blonde.

Her name was Laura. It was only necessary to take one look at her to learn that she was clearly eating her heart out for Christina's date.

"Don't you ever go out with the same woman twice?" Laura asked poisonously when Mark slipped his arm around Christina's waist.

Christina smiled and looked at him. Yeah, he definitely looked like the heartbreaker type. She was smiling though, because she was happy that he had turned out to be her date. She couldn't help it. So far, none of her dates had been with men that were above an average on an attractive-o-meter. This Mark was undoubtedly a ten on any woman's rating chart. At least she wouldn't have to kiss someone at the end of the night that she was not attracted to. So, she was smiling and enjoying the fun of being with a man who was obviously popular. Mindy had already prepared her for being a tool to make another woman jealous.

"Don't scare Tina," Mark said to Laura sternly.

"But I know how you like to give your flings the idea that it's not just a fling," she said, looking particularly wounded. "Someone needs to warn the poor girl."

Christina smiled and answered before Mark had a chance to say anything. "Thanks for the warning, but I'm too young to settle down. You should just enjoy the moment. Don't you think?" Even Christina thought her cheerful eyes and ringing voice were irritating as she said those words. Saying a line like that irked her conscience, even as she said it. She didn't believe it at all. She wanted a steady boyfriend who wouldn't just use her for a fling, but for a long life of deep passionate love. However, Mark was paying her to be on his side, so she said what she had to without choking on her own tongue.

Christina knew she was successful when Laura gave her a disgusted look and then beckoned for someone across the room to join them. "He'll make you sorry, even if you have that attitude," she said crossly as she took the arm of a young man. He was tall and blond and Christina might have been mistaken, but she thought that he looked at her for a trifle longer than was necessary.

Christina flashed a smile back at him. This was all part of leading her secret life. Smiling sweetly at strangers was all part of being Tina. Well, she wouldn't have to do it for much longer. This was the last night. After this, she'd have to make up the difference washing dishes in the back of the pub again. Maybe then she could relax because no one would ever find out what she'd been doing.

Mark led her over to the coat check and politely helped her remove her coat. "You really riled her up," he said as he offered her an arm and led her down the stairs to the ballroom.

"Is she your ex-girlfriend?" Christina asked, trying to get a grasp on the situation. Maybe he would tell her.

"Not exactly. More like a hopeful girlfriend," he explained.

Man alive! He had excellent posture. Christina pushed her shoulders back and tried to walk with half as much dignity as him. Having to match a guy like this was challenging, but she'd do her best. "And this is your way of letting her down easy?" Christina asked.

"Sort of," Mark agreed, turning his dark eyes toward her.

"Did you have a fling with her?"

Mark looked annoyed, but it didn't make him look like an ogre. With features like that, he couldn't look like anything else but gorgeous. Even his arm was solid.

"I don't think that's any of your business," he finally replied. "I said I need you to help me with something tonight and it wasn't her. I assure you, I can take care of myself. Last year, at the New Year's party, I had some … unpleasantness at midnight. You're going to keep me out of trouble. So just be a good girl and take care of me. All right?"

Christina smiled and promised that she'd do a good job.

All in all, the evening was more fun than she expected. She danced with Mark most of the time, and when he was called away by someone else, she danced with one of his friends. He had nice friends. They were good looking, young, successful, and didn't have wandering hands when they danced with her. The food was excellent and Mark was a good date. He was clearly popular both in his profession and with his friends, because he introduced her to at least fifty people, if not more. He had a good sense of fun and knew how to dance. By the end of the night, she had thought more than once that it was a pity this date was just for her job; otherwise, she would have loved to find herself in a more long-term relationship with him. He told her about his interests in a way that none of her other dates had bothered to. It was almost like he wasn't sure how to date an escort and so he was dating her in the same way he would date her if he was really interested in her.

At around eleven thirty, he gave up leaving her even for a moment. He took hold of her hand tightly while they danced and turned people down if they tried to take her from him.

"What happened last year that made you so nervous about midnight?" she asked while pressed close to him in a dance.

He rolled his eyes. "I'd rather not talk about it. It was … unpleasant."

"You keep using that word!"

"Yeah, well, it was. Fine, I'll tell you. I ended up getting passed down a long line of women and it was … unpleasant," he said, looking like he still needed to wash his mouth out.

"I thought most guys would like that," she laughed.

"Are you kidding? It was so quick that I didn't even get a chance to recognize all of them. No, it wasn't fun."

"Yeah, I know it was … unpleasant. And this year, I'm supposed to protect you from it?"

"Well, don't tell me you don't think I look great in my dinner jacket, so …" he paused. Then he leaned in and put his forehead against Christina's and looked into her eyes. "Please take care of me."

Christina wasn't sure, but she thought that knowing she was going to get to kiss him at midnight was making this even more exciting. She looked at the giant clock at the end of the hall. Sometimes it seemed to be moving faster and sometimes it seemed to be moving slower. In a minute the countdown would start.





Mark turned Christina towards him and put his arms around her waist. She was looking into his eyes. She couldn't even hear the noise of the crowd filling the ballroom. There was just her and him.

And then their kiss.

The room was stifling, and so his lips were hot as he pressed them down on hers. Christina had told herself over and over again that she had been kissed plenty of times, and so this wasn't a big deal, but kissing Mark was different. She had never felt her blood like it was scorching though her veins. It was like she was being kissed by someone who knew how to kiss, by someone who really meant business, and by someone who was not going to let up. It wasn't the kiss of a passing stranger who just wanted to avoid being passed around. Instead, it seemed like the kiss of someone who wanted something badly, but was not allowed to have it. Christina broke away and took a quick breath. He pulled her back roughly. Her brain was shutting down, but she had one more thought before she completely shut down. She thought that to him, she must seem like the type of woman who wasn't attainable. Since it was this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he wouldn't stop.

And she didn't really want him to.

At some point, Christina somehow became aware that the singing had stopped and that the band had stopped playing. Christina put her hand to Mark's face and pulled off. Then she looked into his eyes and smiled like their kiss had been part of the act. "Did I do a good job guarding your honour?" she asked with a wicked smile.

His expression went blank, like he just realized what was going on. Maybe, his expression was disappointment, because he just remembered that she really wasn't attainable.

"Of course," he said, professionally. "You did a great job. Do you want something to drink?"

She nodded and he strode towards the bar.

Christina went back to their table and sat down. Why did she have to ruin everything by reminding him that she was only an escort? They could have enjoyed the fantasy for another couple of hours, couldn't they?

Mark returned and gave her a soda water – the only thing she had been drinking all night. He sat down next to her, his expression black when suddenly he was grabbed from behind and given a kiss on the mouth by a woman. It wasn't Laura, but someone else. Christina put a hand to her forehead and wanted to groan. There was no way she could have protected him from that.

The woman winked at Christina afterwards and said, "It's just not New Year's without kissing Mark!"

Mark didn't smile, and Christina was worried that he might be mad at her. Instead, he ran a hand through his hair and leaned forward to ask pleasantly. "Could I please have a piece of your grape bubblegum?"

Christina smiled. "Sorry, I only have raison."

"Please," he persisted. "I gotta get that taste out of my mouth, and I already used your token kiss for the evening. Please?"

She clicked open her purse and pulled out a piece of the gum. She unwrapped it for him and popped it into his mouth.

"It's too bad this is just for tonight," she said, "because if it was just you and I with no strings attached … I know I'd fall for you." She reflected later that she never could have said those words if she didn't have the cover of her identity as Tina. Because she was playing Tina, she was able to say something that daring. Christina never played coy.

"I'll bet you say that to everyone," he said, before biting down hard on the gum.

She smiled. "Didn't you enjoy hearing it?"

Then he pulled her to her feet and made her dance with him.