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Authors: Susan Andersen

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BOOK: Playing Dirty
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When the final footage had played and the player went black, she turned to him. And flashed him the biggest, friendliest smile he’d seen since he’d shot their relationship down in flames in the high school cafeteria back when.

“Okay, I admit it,” she said. “I’m glad I participated. You really captured something here. This—” she flapped a hand at his now sleeping screen “—my God, Gallari, parts of this are just incredible. Jane and Poppy’s memories were so vivid it was almost like having Miss Agnes back for a couple of minutes.”

“So were yours. In fact, I think the definitive moment in the whole interview was when you said the genius of Agnes was the way she encouraged all your passions and helped you build on your strengths. That was a very telling, powerful statement.”

Ava stared at him for a second, then gave him another deep-dimpled, goofy smile. “Aww.” She got up off the couch. “Just for that, I’ve got a present for you. I was going to bring these to the mansion tomorrow, but you might as well take them with you tonight.” She
shot him a crooked smile. “Better you have to pack them than me.”

She strode over to a leather purse sitting on the breakfast bar and plucked a set of keys from it. “I’ll be right back,” she said, then disappeared out the front door before it sank in that she was leaving.

“What the hell?” He, too, climbed to his feet. Where had she gone?

Somewhere close by, he guessed when he saw that she’d left the door ajar. But she wasn’t in the tiny foyer outside her penthouse apartment, the elevator door was closed, and he hadn’t heard it chime between the time she’d walked out and now.

The light above it lit up a moment later, however, and an instant after that it did chime as the doors slid open. Ava stood inside, a stack of what looked like albums in her arms.

“Oh, man,” he said, anticipation building as he stepped forward to relieve her of the burden. “Are these what I think they are?”

“If it’s the albums you asked for, then yes.” Ava led the way back inside and closed the door behind them. “It turned out Poppy had them. She gave them to me when I had dinner with her and Jase tonight, so I had them in my car.”

“Mind if I flip through them real quick?”

She hitched a shoulder. “Knock yourself out.”

He carried what turned out to be two fat albums over to the breakfast bar, where he dumped them beneath an overhead directional light from the kitchen. Sliding the topmost album to sit alongside its twin on the counter, he reverently opened its leather cover.

Excitement rose as he flipped through page after page, his imagination catching fire with the variety of
ways he could use some of the pictures. Agnes Wolcott had been as good at photography as she had been at everything else she’d touched. The biggest problem might be whittling down his choices, since in the one album alone there had been a good dozen or more evocative photos he wouldn’t have a problem finding a use for.

He looked over at Ava. “These are amazing.”

“Wasn’t she something?” she agreed fervently. “I know you only asked for the ones that had us with Miss A, but we’ve got more. We inherited all her albums, and they range practically from her birth to her death.”

“Are you messing with me? Because that would be like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one.”

“I’m serious as cancer, Gallari. I want Miss Agnes’s feature to be the best it can be.”

“Sweet!” Laughing, he snatched her up and swung her around before laying an enthusiastic kiss on her.

It was an impulse…one that, had there been any thought behind it, would have been intended as a quick, friendly peck. But at the first touch of her mouth, at the feel of those soft, cushioning lips beneath his, all thought fled as the chemistry that had always simmered between them ignited. He hauled her close.

A soft grunt of arousal escaped him when her full breasts flattened against his chest.
Lemme in,
was the only thought in his head, and he opened his mouth over those lush lips, kissing her with hot, suctioning authority.
Open up, lemme in.

Ava couldn’t have been more blindsided if a truck had T-boned her out of the blue.
What? No,
flashed through her head.
This is crazy.
She had been enjoying the fact that Cade had driven away her lonelies—but she hadn’t signed on for this.

The thought shorted out, however, as her brain began
sputtering like a faulty fluorescent light. Seduced by the urgency of his kiss, she wrapped her arms around his neck and opened her lips beneath the insistent demand of his.

With the barriers dropped, it was all bold exploring tongues. She felt both energized and languorous. Nerve-rich and sensitized. And so…damn…
hot
.

Hot blood.

Hot skin.

Hot, mindless purpose meeting what was clearly even hotter purpose.

Cade’s hand speared into her hair and gripped, arching her neck as he tugged her head back. Her lips quickly cooled and felt naked when his mouth suddenly slid away from hers to press damp, blistering kisses down her throat.

His free hand slid up her back, then around her side and up her rib cage to encage one breast in furnace-hot fingers that splayed wide to contain the generous curve. They curled to mold to her shape.

Rubbed its fullness in a circular motion against the wall of her chest.

Turned light as a feather as he finessed his palm over her rigid nipple—making her head go light with need. If she could have, she would’ve blinked her top and bra away to feel the full effect of his bare skin touching hers.

God!
Just the thought had her arching to push her aching flesh more firmly into that authoritative hand, and they both groaned.

It was her own
do-me
moan, so brazenly carnal, that shocked her back to her senses. Horrified to find herself about to repeat the biggest mistake of her life, she slid her hands down his chest and shoved him away.

“What the—?” Obviously still in the moment, he blinked at her. “Ava, no…”

She did her best to suck in equanimity—rickety as it was—with every breath she inhaled. If she’d had a second to consider Cade’s actions, surely she would have repudiated them. But she hadn’t—she’d neither had that second nor done any repudiating. Instead she’d practically climbed him like a cat in heat. “You need to go,” she said around the ground glass of shame in her throat.

“What?”

She took a step back. Felt her fragile composure threaten to crack and grabbed another calming breath. “You need to leave now.”

“You’re kicking me out?
Now?
” His eyes, which had been hotter than napalm, abruptly morphed to cerulean ice. But he visibly reined himself in and gave her a charming little half smile. “We’re not even going to discuss it?”

“Seriously?”
she demanded hotly, then took vicious pride that she, too, could bury her temper almost as quickly as it had surfaced. Refusing to admit how bone-deep shaky she felt, she used all the edgy, achy dissatisfaction making her skin feel a size too tight to channel her mother. She wrapped her manners around herself like armor. Looked at Cade with Jacqueline’s coolest you’re-the-shit-on-the-bottom-of-my-shoe-but-I’m-much-too-well-bred-to-say-so demeanor.

“Excuse me if I’m not buying this again,” she said with a calm she was inordinately proud of, given she was about to implode at any minute. “I got sucked in by you once—I’m not doing that again. And our history aside, this is a bad idea on so many levels I can’t even begin to count them all. I will tell you this, though—I
don’t mix with my clients. Not this way. So, I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I might be amenable to starting something with you, but that’s never going to happen.”

And ignoring the fact that there had been a moment there when she’d wanted nothing more than to sink into the sensations he’d made her feel, ignoring his dissatisfaction and the anger she could feel radiating beneath the easy-come-easy-go exterior he’d slapped over it, she found his coat and helped him gather up the damn albums that had started this whole fiasco.

Then she hustled him the hell out of her house, trying to get rid of him before he had a chance to see through the bum’s rush to the raw nerves propelling her.

CHAPTER EIGHT

What is
WRONG
with me? Cade has no business messing with my head this way. I have got to put him out of my mind once and for all.

C
ADE DROVE
downtown in a red haze of wrath, arriving at the pay lot down the street from his temporary Belltown digs without any recollection of his trip from point A to point B. Finding a single, barely adequate parking spot, he maneuvered into it. Then he merely sat staring at a patch of antiquated bricks where the foggy glow of the lot’s spotlight illuminated the back side of the building in front of him.

Okay,
he thought moodily,
what the hell was that all about?

He’d gone at her with all the finesse of a bull in rutting season. And maybe he didn’t like it, but she’d had every right to say no. But, dammit—

“‘I’m sorry if I gave you the impression I might be
amenable
to starting something with you,’” he mimicked in an acidic falsetto. Hearing himself, however, he unclenched his fingers one by one from the steering wheel, blew out a breath and took a shot at clearing his mind.

Until—finally!—for the first time since laying that kiss on her, he felt his brain kick into gear.

Hell, yeah, she’d been amenable—there’d been no “might be” about it. He’d tasted her amenability on his tongue, had felt it like a diamond bit drilling a hole in his palm. So she had given him the kiss-off once she’d pulled out of his arms. It was on him that he’d allowed it to sidetrack him for a while—but he was through reacting like a frustrated teenager.

It was time to set aside his knee-jerk fury at her you’re-the-shit-on-my-shoe delivery. And it was
way
past time to stop thinking with his dick.

Because his big head knew damn well she had wanted him every bit as much as he’d wanted her. They’d had some serious combustive chemistry going on tonight, and no way had it been all one-sided. A woman who was only tolerating a man’s kiss didn’t wrap her lips around his tongue and suck on it as if she were fellating a different appendage. She didn’t plaster her luscious body against his from chest to knees.

And she sure as hell didn’t push her plush, gorgeous tit into his hand in a wordless demand for more.

“Don’t tell me it’s never gonna happen, baby.”
That
was a phrase she would’ve been smarter not to use on him. He’d built a career by proving tougher people than Ava Spencer dead wrong when they’d told him he would never do this, that or the other. Hell, Allan Gallari himself had told him he’d never amount to anything.

It had only given extra impetus to Cade’s determination to succeed—and was the last time he had ever talked to his old man.

Because tell him no and it just kicked into gear his built-in “watch me” machine. It drove him to find ways, to use damn near any means at his disposal to accomplish precisely what he’d been told he couldn’t do. It
had worked in his professional life, and it would work with Ava, too.

For thirteen damn years, every time he was in Seattle he had knocked himself out trying to get her to hear his apology. He’d told himself it was merely because he was tired of beating himself up for what he’d done to her. But as much as he hated to admit it—and God knows he’d been denying this since senior year—they had some unfinished business. And it wasn’t all his—they both needed to face up to it.

He got it already that he’d hurt her and she hated him. He really did.

But she also wanted him—and he was about to take advantage of that to get what
he
wanted.

Her.

“Jesus, woman.” Shaking his head, he climbed out of the car and walked around to open the back hatch and retrieve his computer. “It’s not like you to issue me a bald-faced challenge like that. What were you thinking?”

Because she of all people ought to know he wasn’t above playing dirty.

 

T
HE NEXT AFTERNOON
Tony strolled past Agnes Wolcott’s bedroom suite on his security guard duties—or so he was prepared to claim if anyone asked why this was his third pass-by today. Not that anyone would. That was one of the things that made cons possible: people pretty much saw what they expected or what you put out there for them to see. It was a huge positive in his line of work.

Too bad for him, he was dealing more in negatives these days. Because once again the sitting room portion of Agnes’s suite was filled with people, just as it
had been not only during his previous two pass-bys, but every other time he’d checked it the past several days.

“Ladies,” he said, poking his head into the room to give the females inside his most charming smile. “Gent.” He shot the man sitting in the makeup chair, wrapped in a silver cape and looking chagrined to be caught having makeup applied to his face, a commiserating man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do nod. “No one’s seen anyone around who doesn’t belong, I take it?”

They agreed they hadn’t, and, giving the carved wood wainscoting a quick covetous glance, he withdrew, traversing the hallway on light feet.

His tread was considerably heavier as he stalked down the stairs.

Shit!
They couldn’t use a different room to get the interviewees ready for the sonuvabitching shoot? The old duffer Molly was working on had been some pubescent kid with a crush on the Wolcott broad back in the day, or so he’d heard this morning. The bitchy hairstylist’s replacement, a brunette named Sarah who looked scarily as if she was about to pop out a kid at any minute, was discussing with the woman in her chair how she liked her hair styled. He hadn’t caught what the stylee’s connection to the Wolcott broad was.

Like he’d give a flying fuck if he knew.

Dammit, this sucked large. The potential payoff here was huge, but he was on this gig with forged or borrowed credentials. He hadn’t really perused them too closely, since he hadn’t anticipated being around long enough for it to matter. Yet it upped the risk factor.

His chances were more than decent that no one would ever discover the fact. But he’d just as soon not test the
theory. Not when Gallari had the look of a guy just a
lit
-tle too intelligent for Tony’s liking.

On the other hand, he was nowhere near ready to pack up his bags and go home. His threefold goal was simple. Get the damn sparklies. Blow this pop stand. Live a life of leisure.

It sure as hell wasn’t to go to jail for fraud. Or even to be taken in for questioning, since he couldn’t afford to be scrutinized too closely. Not with his long list of aliases. And not when there was undoubtedly an outstanding warrant made out in one or more of those names. In possibly more than one state.

But this day-shift thing wasn’t working out the way he had hoped. It would have been excellent if Uncle Mike had just cut to the chase and been more specific about where on the wall the goddamn hidey-hole was located. Had
that
happened, instead of the old man rambling on and on before abruptly going tits up, Tony would have been long gone by now. But it hadn’t, so he had to deal with the facts as they stood.

Landing this job had taken a mix of blind luck, fast talking and hard work on his part. As usual, there was a woman involved—since charming the ladies was his stock-in-trade. In this case it had been Mildred—Christ, who named their kid Mildred in this day and age?— Westing, the painfully plain chick in charge of hiring at the company his meticulous research had discovered filled the security positions for Scorched Earth Productions. He’d wined her, dined her and casually dropped in conversation one night that he was looking for a new job as his money from the last one was starting to stretch thin.

Which reminded him. He stopped in the hallway and pulled out his BlackBerry. After texting her a quick
note, he sent it winging off into cyberspace. Replacing the phone in his pocket, he continued down the hall.

It always paid to keep useful connections up to date—you never knew when one might come in handy again.

For all that he was grateful to Mildred for getting him this gig, however, he saw now that he needed the night shift. It would be quiet and a man would only have to perform an occasional pass through the mansion—leaving him uninterrupted hours to go over that complicated woodwork inch by inch.

Trouble was, John held the position, and it wasn’t as if he could just ask the guy to switch shifts with him. So what did that leave him? To shove the night watchman in front of an oncoming bus? To rig his brakes or hit him over the head with a baseball bat?

He blew out a disgusted breath. He was a con artist—the emphasis here on
artist
—not some hit man or no-neck enforcer. Not that he
couldn’t
do those things if the situation called for it. But he was pretty sure there was a better solution.

There was Beks, for one thing. He couldn’t figure out if she was just a glorified gofer or had some actual clout. But he did know she was someone that everyone, including Gallari, liked. In fact, the producer-director indulged her a lot more than you’d expect from the usual power player in his position. Hell, for all Tony knew, maybe the guy just wanted in her pants—or was already doing her. She wasn’t
his
type, but maybe he’d been overlooking something here. He was all about the simple solutions if there was one to be found.

He headed downstairs to check her out.

Gallari and crew were in the midst of yet another shoot, so he knew he’d have to work fast, since one of
Beks’s jobs was to usher people into the interviews. Tony didn’t know how long the one in progress would last but there were at least two more interviewees upstairs. After checking a few other rooms on the main floor, he tracked her down in the kitchen.

“Hey,” he said, coming up to the service table where she was filling a plate.

“Hey, yourself. Taking a break?”

“Yeah. Aside from patrolling to make sure no one’s where they’re not supposed to be, there’s not much to do with the place filled to the rafters. I’ve been wishing lately I’d taken the night shift instead.”

“Why?” She studied him with raised brows. “Seems like there’d be even less to do then.”

“True.” He shrugged. Gave her his patented lady-killer smile. “But the trade-off for boring is peace and quiet. At least I could get some homework done.”

“You’re a
student?
” Her voice was so incredulous it was hard not to feel a little insulted.

But he hadn’t been doing this for as many years as he had to let it show. Only rubes made newbie mistakes. “Yeah.” Giving her a self-deprecating smile, he cocked his eyebrow at her. “Why do you find that so amazing?”

“Sorry.” She grinned at him. “It’s just—you seem a little old to be in college.”

“I’m thirty,” he agreed with a shrug, shaving seven years off his actual age without hesitation. Making lightning-speed adjustments to fit situations was second nature. “I’ve had to get my education in stages as I can afford it.”

“Oh, man, I hear that. I got mine in the usual four-and-a-quarter years, but had to take out student loans to finance it. I’ll probably be fifty before I pay the suckers off. So what’s your major?”

He talked with her another five, ten minutes, but it quickly became apparent that he was no more her type than she was his. Mostly because—and this part pinched—it was clear she viewed him as too old.

Man, when had that happened? He was used to charming women of all ages, so it was hard not to wince. Never mind that when he was on the grift it mostly involved more mature women, since the young ones rarely had the resources to make them worth his while. Hell, yeah, never mind that. Nobody wanted to be thought of as
old
.

The built redhead strolled in a moment later. She greeted them both with a smile.

Now, her he wouldn’t mind doing—
plus
she was closer to his age than the punk or Goth or whatever the hell type chick Beks was. But he dismissed the notion in almost the same instant it occurred to him. Red had seriously nice tits, but she ran the kitchen, for God’s sake. What use could she possibly be to his cause?

Maybe he oughtta put some thought into creating a diversion that would get people the hell out of here for a bit instead. Not that he had a clue what kind of disruption would allow him the luxury of time to go over the carved wall undisturbed.

But he was definitely going to bend his mind to the problem. Because he
was
going to find the damn jewelry. And he’d prefer to do it fast, then get the hell out of Dodge.

Not that he was particularly hopeful right this moment about his chances for the desired fast find-and-leave. He had a feeling he’d either need the as-yet-undetermined diversion or some seriously good luck to further his cause. Without it, he feared he’d just end up
empty-handed. And now that he knew what he stood to lose?

No fucking way was he allowing that to happen.

 

A
VA CLEARED
the platters off the food service table, packaging up what could be added to tomorrow’s offerings and discarding the rest into the yard waste cart outside the kitchen door. She wiped down the counters and tables. All that remained then was to empty and clean the industrial coffeemaker, and she could hit the road. She’d been on her feet nearly all day, so she was more than ready to go home.

It was quiet in the mansion, which felt
off
somehow, even though the production company hadn’t occupied it that long. Funny how quickly one could get used to the controlled chaos of a typical day on a shoot.

No, she corrected herself, the shoot itself wasn’t chaotic. It was more that the production in general was often a beehive of activity. Or maybe an ant farm, since everyone performed assigned tasks with near-military precision. Either way, it was usually busy and noisy while they were setting up, then with one simple, “Quiet on the set,” it went silent as a chapel.

She found herself fascinated by the process. Seeing Cade and his cameraman in action was sort of like watching a ballet for the deaf. He sometimes talked softly to Louie, but often their communication was done through hand gestures, while crew stood nearby ready to jump in to do their jobs with swift efficiency if they were called upon.

Now, however, most everyone had gone home. Cade was probably still around somewhere, since he tended to be one of the last people—if not the last person—to
leave most evenings. She wouldn’t know, though. She hadn’t seen much of him for the past three days.

BOOK: Playing Dirty
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