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Authors: Kristin Hardy

U.S. Male

BOOK: U.S. Male
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“If I said I’d be your lover, no strings, the entire time we were in Stockholm, you’d do it?” asked Joss.

The situation was rapidly slipping out of Bax’s control. “Look,” he said, backpedaling, “it’s not that simple to retrieve stolen property from a serious criminal—even if it is your property.”

Something predatory entered Joss’s eyes. “Sure it is.”

Before he could react, she’d risen, pushing his shoulders back against the office chair.

“What are you doing?”

“A feasibility study,” she told him, and placed one knee on either side of his thighs, straddling him. And when her mouth touched his, all he could feel was the hot, slicing arousal.

He had no business doing this, Bax told himself even as he closed his eyes. She was a client, or a potential client, they were in his office, at his desk and oh hell, she was all he could feel with only her lips on his and the warmth of her thighs bracketing his own.

“What kind of game are you playing?” he asked hoarsely.

“Just making sure we have chemistry.” She sat back. “After all, the best detectives and their sidekicks always have it.”

Dear Reader,

The stories I write are often influenced by my surroundings. When I found out I was going to go to Stockholm last fall, I immediately began working on a way to bring that experience to my characters. The result was
U.S. Male,
the sequel to
Certified Male.
I had great fun prowling Stockholm, searching out locations. Who knew they had a postal museum? And what a surprise to find in their collection a pair of post office Mauritius stamps, the very stamps featured in
Certified Male.
Best of all, I got to meet the editors at Harlequin’s Stockholm offices and have a brainstorming lunch figuring out character names and locations for a variety of scenes. Ewa Högberg and her colleagues helped me bring this book to life.

I hope you’ll drop me a line at [email protected] and tell me how you liked reading a Harlequin Blaze novel with an international location. And don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about SEX & THE SUPPER CLUB—look for the stories of Paige, Thea and Delaney to come in 2006. To keep track, sign up for my newsletter at www.kristinhardy.com for contests, recipes and updates on my recent and upcoming releases.

Have fun,

Kristin Hardy

Books by Kristin Hardy

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

44—MY SEXIEST MISTAKE

78—SCORING
*

86—AS BAD AS CAN BE
*

94—SLIPPERY WHEN WET
*

148—TURN ME ON
**

156—CUTTING LOOSE
**

164—NOTHING BUT THE BEST
**

187—CERTIFIED MALE
***

U.S. MALE
Kristin Hardy

To Ewa and Anna,
tack så mycket for all the help
and to Stephen kärlek

 

Prologue

San Francisco, July 2005

“W
HAT DO YOU THINK
of this one, Brandon, sweetie?” The woman looked at her towheaded young son, who sat like a spoiled prince in his tall chair. “It’s got an airplane.”

Maybe seven or eight, he thumped down his Game Boy and poked bad-temperedly at the stamps she showed him.

“Please don’t touch them with your fingers,” Joss Chastain said sharply. “They’re easily damaged.”

“Oh, Brandon doesn’t mean anything by it, do you, sweetie?”

Brandon scowled. “I wanna play my Game Boy.”

“In a minute, sweetie. This is something special you can do with Grandpop.”

It gave Joss a twinge. She’d never collected stamps with her grandfather. Instead, while he’d been on vacation recently, she’d let a collection of the most valuable of his many rare stamps be stolen.

Giving her head a brisk shake, she laid a stamp collector’s kit on the counter. “This has all the basics he’ll need for collecting: an album, tongs, a perforation gauge, a magnifying glass and some nice starter stamps.”

“Oh, this is perfect. He’s got to join a club at school,” she explained to Joss. “We thought stamp collecting would be good for him.”

Meanwhile, Brandon’s sister sat quietly on a chair nearer Joss. She was maybe three or four, quiet and big-eyed in a way that reminded Joss of her own sister. Joss smiled to herself and used sleight of hand to make the pen she held disappear.

The little girl’s eyes widened. Her mother and brother bent over the merchandise, oblivious.

Joss winked at her. Enjoying herself, Joss made the pen reappear, then seemingly put it up her nose. She held her nose and blew, and brought the pen out of her ear and held it up.

The girl giggled.

“Don’t bother the nice lady, now, Sarah,” the mother said and the girl subsided obediently. Joss guessed she was often the quiet one in the background while darling Brandon got what he wanted.

Finally, the woman made her selection and Joss rang it all up. “That will be forty-three sixty-five,” she said, making a mental bet that the purchase went in the back of the closet for good as soon as Brandon got home.

The woman handed her three twenties and Joss made change. “Here you are, that’s ten, fifteen, sixteen ten and…hmmm, I seem to have lost the quarter somewhere. Do you see it on the ground?” Joss leaned over the counter and looked on the burgundy carpet. Sarah looked down, shaking her head.

“Nope,” Joss said, “it’s not here and it’s not on the counter.” She leaned toward Sarah. “I know, maybe it’s here.” Joss reached out and pulled a quarter from behind the ear of the little girl, who giggled delightedly. “Yep, that’s it,” Joss said, dropping it in the palm of the astonished Sarah.

She was still alternately staring at the quarter and looking at Joss over her shoulder as they walked out the door.

When the phone rang a moment later, Joss picked it up, still smiling. “Chastain Philatelic Investments.”

“It’s me,” said a leaden voice.

The pleasure over entertaining children vanished in a sharp wave of concern as she recognized her sister’s voice. “Gwen. My God, what’s happened? You sound like hell.” Gwen, who had spent the last three weeks in Las Vegas, as she tracked down the thief who’d stolen the rare stamps valued at four and a half million, and which represented their grandfather’s retirement.

“It’s done.” Gwen let out an audible breath.

“You’ve found them? What happened? Did Jerry have them hidden in his room where you thought?” Jerry was the slick little hustler they’d hired to help Joss at the store while Gwen had traveled to some stamp auctions. It still made Joss burn in impotent anger to remember the way he’d conned her and broken into the safe to steal the stamps while her back had been turned.

“Brace yourself. Jerry wasn’t working on his own. He was hired by Stewart.”

“Stewart Oakes?” Joss repeated in shock. “How can that be? He worked for Grampa. He was Grampa’s friend.”

“He’s not anyone’s friend,” Gwen said flatly. “Joss, he shot Jerry. I saw him do it. He was going to shoot me, too.”

Joss groped for the chair behind her and sat. She swallowed. “Let me get this straight. Stewart pulled a gun on you?” On her little sister? She was going to hurt him, Joss vowed grimly. She was going to find him and wring his neck. He’d been like a big brother. No wonder Gwen sounded so shattered. “What was he thinking?” Joss demanded.

“I don’t think he
was
thinking at that point. They said he owed money to some leg breakers and thought he’d pay them off with the commission fee he got from a collector
who wanted some of Grampa’s stamps. Only Grampa said no sale, and Stewart had already spent the money.”

“He couldn’t explain and pay the guy back over time?”

“I don’t know. He won’t say who the collector is but he sounds scared spitless.”

Joss shook her head. “God, Gwennie, I just can’t believe…I’m so sorry you had to go through this.” She dragged a hand through her hair. “And I’m just sitting here being a lump. You could have been killed.”

“I wasn’t, though.”

“As long as you’re safe, that’s what’s important. And you got the stamps back.”

“I didn’t get them all. Stewart already sent one of the stamps to the collector.”

“Not the Blue Mauritius?” Joss whispered, her hand tightening on the phone. The Blue Mauritius, their grandfather’s prize. It was one of the most valuable stamps in the world, worth some one million dollars at auction.

“I got the Blue Mauritius back okay.”

Joss closed her eyes in trepidation. “I hear a really big ‘but’ coming.”

“The stamp that’s missing is its companion, the one-penny Mauritius.” Gwen hesitated. “If anything, it’s worth even more.”

1

San Francisco, two weeks later

“H
EY
, G
WEN
, I’m going to have wild sex on a jetliner today.” Joss announced. She was sprawled on one of the chairs in the back office of the store, coffee in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Gwen, blond and poised behind her desk, merely raised an eyebrow as she sat on hold. “And here I didn’t even know you were going on a trip.”

“It says so, right here,” Joss said, pointing to her horoscope. “‘Love and romance are in the air. Travel likely. Big dreams will come true if you leap for the stars.’ And yours says, let’s see, oh, yeah, ‘Hunky, adoring sportswriter will sweep you out for dinner and wild sex in his marina condo afterward.’”

“You don’t say.” Gwen’s tone was dry. “Horoscopes have gotten a lot more interesting, lately.”

“So has your life,” Joss observed, pointing to the photo of Gwen’s new boyfriend smiling out at them from the sports page of the newspaper.

Gwen grinned, then snapped to attention as someone apparently came on the line. She cleared her throat. “Yes, this is Gwen Chastain of Chastain Philatelic Investments. I’m calling to check on the progress of the investigation of my grandfather’s stamps.”

Joss listened for a few minutes, then abandoned the effort. Better to wait until all was said and done and Gwen could fill her in. In the meantime, she took a sip of coffee and stared at the print on the paper.

Big dreams will come true if you leap for the stars.

Or maybe not. After seven years of leaping for the stars in pursuit of a career in music, she’d finally fallen to earth with a resounding thud. Four bands, four breakups, a résumé dotted with gigs at bars and small clubs around the Pacific Northwest. Along with doing street theatre magic shows, it had paid the bills, but not much more than that. At twenty-six, she wasn’t a single step closer than she’d been as a nineteen-year-old with big dreams. She had nothing, no career, no money, not even a car. Maybe it was time to admit that she wasn’t going to find the lucky confluence of circumstances that was going to let her perform for a living.

At twenty-six, maybe it was time to look for something else.

All things considered, she was probably fortunate that the most recent band implosion had taken place in San Francisco, home of her sister and her grandparents. After all, it had been a place to stay and a place to work while her grandparents went on their three-month tour of the South Pacific. For a few weeks, she’d pitched in without complaint, trying for once to fight off the inevitable restlessness and get on her feet.

And then everything had gone to hell in a handbasket.

“Dammit!”

Joss jumped at the sound of Gwen slamming down the receiver in the cradle. “You’ve gotten louder since you came back from Vegas, that’s for sure. What’s up?”

“Interpol,” Gwen said, investing the word with an immense amount of disgust. “They’re dropping the investi
gation of the one-penny Mauritius.” Her voice vibrated with frustration. “A million dollar stamp, one of the rarest in the world, and they’re just giving up.”

“How can they drop the case? I thought you knew who had the stamp.”

“I have a theory, even a name, but apparently that’s not enough.”

“They’re investigators, aren’t they?” Joss set down her coffee. “Can’t they figure it out?”

Gwen pushed back from the desk in annoyance. “They can’t find any leads. They say there’s nothing to follow up on.”

“I suppose Jerry could have just cooked up the story to make Stewart look bad,” Joss speculated.

Gwen shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense to me, not the way they were talking that night in the hotel room. I mean, Jerry says he stole the stamps for Stewart because the collector wanted them. It makes sense that Stewart might have slipped and said too much to him. They were buddies.”

“Is that why they’re testifying against one another?” Joss asked wryly.

“I think Jerry took it kind of personally that Stewart shot him.”

“Sensitive. So Interpol doesn’t believe that Jerry’s Swedish collector is the same guy who tried to buy the two Mauritius stamps from Grampa?”

Gwen shrugged. “I don’t know if they don’t necessarily believe it, but they can’t find anything to substantiate it.” She rose and stalked over to rip a photograph of the smiling Stewart off a bulletin board and toss it in the trash can. “The stamps Stewart had stolen from Grampa’s collection were for Karl Silverhielm, I’d bet money on it,” she said, crossing back to her seat. “He’s got a reputation for
being obsessive and he’s been after the Post Office Mauritius pair for the past five years.”

It mystified Joss that anyone could be that hung up on little squares of colored paper. “What’s the big deal about the Mauritius, anyway?”

“There are two of them—the one-penny and the two-penny. You know the two-penny stamp, it’s the indigo one.”

“The Blue Mauritius.”

Gwen nodded. “The one-penny is a kind of red-orange.”

“The Orange Mauritius?” Joss guessed.

“No one calls it that. They just say the one-penny Mauritius.”

“Does anything about stamp collecting make sense? I mean, how can a measly stamp be worth over a million dollars? Why does anyone care?”

Gwen smiled. “They’re over a hundred and sixty years old, for one thing, and they’ve got a story. It was all a big mistake, see? That’s where the most valuable stamps usually come from.”

“Like the upside down airplanes?”

“Sort of, only whole sheets of the Inverted Jennies are out there. Only a handful of Post Office Mauritius stamps exist.”

“So what’s the big deal? What was the error?”

“They were made by an island printer when the local post office ran out of stamps. The postmaster told him to print ‘Post Paid’ on them but he screwed up and put ‘Post Office’ on them, instead.”

“The wrong words? That’s what a million dollars of fuss is all about?” Joss shook her head in amazement. “You collector types.”

“Silverhielm wants a Post Office Mauritius pair, badly.”

“So why didn’t Grampa sell? He’s ready to retire, why not take the money?”

“I don’t think he liked Silverhielm,” Gwen said slowly. “There’s something a little off about him and I think Grampa sensed it. Besides, his offer was only a million for each.”

“I thought that was what they were worth.”

“Separately. Together, they’ve gone at auction for as much as three million.”

It paralyzed Joss to think about that kind of money. It paralyzed her that she’d been the one responsible for losing at least part of it. “Did Grampa have any idea they’d be worth that much?”

“He got them from his grandfather and they probably weren’t cheap when he got them. Like investing in gold bars. Expensive, but worth it.”

“Except that it’s not so easy to stick gold bars in your pocket and walk away with them the way Jerry did with the stamps.” Joss stared moodily into her coffee cup. “It kills me to think about telling Grampa about this.”

“It’s not as bad as it was,” Gwen said softly. “We got most of them back.”

“You got most of them back, and you almost got shot doing it.” Joss picked a quarter up off the desk and began rolling it in her fingers. “So why is Interpol dropping the case? Didn’t they look into Silverhielm?”

Gwen nodded. “They say they’ve done some investigation but their hands are tied at this point. They can’t just walk in and search his house or his safe-deposit boxes.”

“I suppose not, but have they interviewed Stewart?”

“He doesn’t know anything.”

“Or won’t say.” He was a thug and a liar. As far as Joss was concerned, there was no reason he might not be a coward. Still… “Why don’t you try talking to him?” she asked suddenly. “He might tell you.”

“I’m not sure I could do it,” Gwen said, resting her chin against her hands. “It’s too hard, knowing what he did and seeing him again. He was practically family.”

Fresh anger coursed through Joss. Stewart had worked at the store when Gwen had been a gawky fourteen-year-old, looking up to him. She’d trusted him. They’d all trusted him and gotten only betrayal for their troubles.

Gwen shook her head. “Anyway, even if he confirmed that it was Silverhielm, what am I going to do, fly to Stockholm and camp out on the guy’s front porch?”

“Stockholm?” Joss blinked and sat up. “Wait a minute, isn’t the International Stamp Expo in Stockholm next week?”

“Yes, but I’ve got too much going on here. I can’t go.”

“No, but I could,” Joss said, her eyes flashing. “Remember?
Travel is likely.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Why is that ridiculous? You did it.” A chance, she thought, a chance to make things right.

“I went to Las Vegas. This is Stockholm. You don’t even speak the language,” Gwen said in exasperation.

“I’ll find someone who does. Hell, I’ll hire a translator. Look, Gwen, all of this was my fault.”

“It was both of our faults.”

Joss shook her head. “If I hadn’t left Jerry in the store with access to the safe, he’d never have had the chance to steal everything.”

“He would have gotten to them sooner or later,” Gwen countered. “I should never have hired him.”

“Which you did because of me. I’m going.” In an instant, it had gone from a passing thought to something Joss wanted passionately. Needed passionately.

“There are other ways.”

“How?” Joss jumped to her feet and began pacing.
“You’ve done all the work here. I’ve just sat around doing nothing.” And it had rankled her, every minute. “I want my chance to make it right. You already had yours.”

“And I almost got a bullet in my brain, remember?” Gwen said hotly. “It’s too risky. Silverhielm isn’t just some rich guy. He had Stewart hurt, Joss. He scared him to death. It’s not a job for us. It’s a job for the police.”

“The police aren’t doing anything,” Joss flared. “Do you want to just write off a million dollars of Grampa’s retirement? I don’t. I can’t, Gwen. I couldn’t live with it.”

“You may not live if you try to get it back.”

“So I’ll get some help.”

“Like who?”

“I don’t know,” she snapped. “I’ll call my friend Tom, the promoter at Avalon.”

“A music promoter’s going to be able to go with you to Stockholm and get stolen property back from a criminal?”

“Why not? A sportswriter helped you. Look, Tom knows this town inside and out. He might be able to point me to someone who could help.” Joss sank back down in her chair and looked at Gwen pleadingly. “I want to do this, Gwen. I need to.”

Gwen sighed. “Well, we’ve still got most of my poker winnings as a war chest. We’ve got the money to do it, but only if you find someone who can really help you,” she warned. “Not the music promoter. Someone who’ll know what to do when you hit Stockholm.”

“Okay.” Joss reached out for her coffee and took a sip. “Can he be cute?”

“Wait a minute. You didn’t cook all this up just so you could have sex on an airplane, did you?” Gwen asked skeptically.

Joss laughed. “Who, me?”

BOOK: U.S. Male
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