Hustled to the Altar
One con artist bride. One cocky ex-lover. One chance to sting a rotten thief…
A reformed grifter, Renny O’Laughlin, thinks marriage will make an honest woman of her, but the day before her wedding, she discovers her employer has been duped. Her conscience demands she make things right–which means visiting her ex.
Playboy Conroy Burke never loses, but he lost Renny. When she tells him how his Gran was tricked, he sees a chance to win back his wildcard. It’s a simple matter of setting up a swindler, avoiding inept kidnappers, and facing his nemesis–today.
Sparks fly as one small detour becomes a madcap adventure and devolves into a life-threatening encounter with serious criminals. She’s supposed to get married tomorrow, but maybe she’ll go to jail–if she survives at all. Either way, Renny is never going to make it to the altar on time.
Hustled To The Altar is a fast-paced romantic comedy filled with engaging characters, heartfelt emotion, and “enough twists to keep you hooked” until the satisfying ending.
Hustled to the Altar
Nowhere in Renny O'laughlin's Guide for a First Time Bride did it say, 'On the day before your wedding, visit your ex- boyfriend in a pool hall.'
— Hustled To The Altar
Hustled To The Altar was a Golden Heart Finalist (twice!) and got me an agent and wound up going to the final four in the Romantic Times American Title Contest, but it never found a home with a traditional publisher. In fact, there’s nothing like it in my backlist.
I’ve always loved it, though, so, about the time I made my First Sale to Harlequin, I self-published it.
Hustled To The Altar is a stand-alone, one of a kind, high energy romp that takes place in one day. It’s funny and silly and if I ever think of a suitable follow up, I’ll write it, but so far I’m stumped. Enjoy!
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Hustled to the Altar
8:17 a.m., Friday
Nowhere in Renny O’Laughlin’s Guide for a First Time Bride did it say, “On the day before your wedding, visit your old boyfriend in a pool hall.”
So much for doing things by the book.
On the other hand, the author would probably condone her behavior, if he understood the circumstances. Maybe. Okay she was rationalizing, but she was here to lift a weight off her conscience, not add to it.
Reaching for the worn door handle, she paused when the voice of reason, her fiancé’s, said, “Respectable women don’t enter pool halls unescorted.”
Renny tensed. Sometimes Jacob was so old-fashioned it was— No, it was nice, she affirmed to herself, but couldn’t resist trying to lighten him up.
“I’ll be sure to remember that when I become one,” she teased.
It didn’t work. He continued to frown.
Renny couldn’t blame him. She had left the sensible woman he knew on her bedroom floor with her housecoat. But explanations would take time she didn’t have, so she conjured her “of course there isn’t a problem, officer” smile and patted his arm. “It’ll be better if I see him alone. I’ll be five minutes. Tops.”
Tugging open the heavy door of Shakey’s Billiards and Bar, she entered. She could have played the proper lady and brought Jacob with her, but she wasn’t sure how Con was going to react to her news. Rather than set herself up for humiliation in front of Jacob, she opted for speaking to Con in private. So here she was, unescorted, taking in the scents of stale popcorn and fresh coffee drifting on the air.
She heard the clatter of an adding machine and waved toward the bar where Shakey sat tallying last night’s receipts. He was a paunchy man with a gray beard and a seaman’s hat.
“I need a word with the Prince of Play,” she explained.
“Number five table.” He pointed.
It wasn’t necessary. The place was a tomb, dimly lit but for a slant of sunshine through the open back door, empty but for Indiana Jones slouched over a pool table wearing ancient jeans, a bed-head haircut and a pretense that he wasn’t waiting on adventure.
Pressure built in her throat as she walked toward Conroy Burke.
He tapped the cue ball. It kissed the seven, sending it whispering at an angle. His concentrated expression relaxed into satisfaction as he straightened.
“You want a word with me?” He spoke in a genial tone, almost indifferent. “What happened to waiting until hell froze over?”
Show no fear, she reminded herself. “It only took six months. Who’d have guessed?”
“I did. Looks like I won the betting pool.”
“You expect me to believe you turned our breakup into a game? You’re not that shameless.”
“Cookie, I take pride in being that shameless.”
She’d give him that, but he wasn’t cruel. If there was a game going on, it was between the two of them and it was going on right here.
She drummed her nails on the rail of the pool table. “You’re trying to score the first point.”
“I’m not trying.”
“You’re the most trying individual this close to the Rockies.”
“Flattery isn’t necessary.”
“I had you at hello?”
His mouth twitched and that made her chuckle, not so much from amusement as relief. After six months of silence, she had wondered if he would speak to her at all. Sparring with him was tricky, risky even, but familiar.
They locked gazes.
For a few seconds, she let herself bask in the tingling self-awareness she always felt around him, the way her hair felt softer when she brushed it off her face, the way her heart beat a little faster, the way each breath felt lighter. She had missed him, she realized, and glanced away in mild alarm.
“How’s the play value?” she asked. It was a question she would ask of any game he was designing.
“On our breakup? Until now, lousy. The rules weren’t clear and it dragged on too long.”
Interesting attitude, considering the most competitive man in America had given up after a handful of unreturned texts. Sure, he’d been busy selling his company, but if he had cared enough, he would have fought for her. Still, he was giving her something with the admission, so she gave back.
“I didn’t mean to avoid you this long. It’s just you weren’t around to talk to.”
“I don’t get to the Mediterranean as often as I’d like.”
Okay, so she had hidden in Europe with his grandmother. She resisted the urge to apologize. She had been home for weeks and he hadn’t made an effort to see her—not that she’d noticed.
“We expected you back sooner. Where’ve you been all week?” she asked.
“Driving. Enjoying my freedom.”
“Mmm. I saw the Spitfire outside.” That’s how he’d been located. Even though he’d promised to come home this week to take over from her with his gran, no one had seen or heard from him until his housekeeper had spotted his car on her way to work.
Renny wanted to lecture him for neglecting Mona over the last few months but didn’t have the heart. She knew, from what he’d told Mona over the phone, what kind of pressure he’d been under and how conflicted he’d felt about selling his company. She still didn’t understand why he’d done it.
He paused in re-chalking the tip of his cue stick. “You look good, Renny.”
Despite the bright coral color, her dress was more understated than the clothes she had been wearing while they were dating. The “M” of the bodice wasn’t as close fitting as she usually liked and, despite the perky row of frills around the hem, the dress lacked the sassiness of the tassels and short skirts she used to prefer. Still, she was a sucker for a compliment, so she smiled.
“Thanks. I bought this in Deception Springs last weekend. Your gran thought we deserved a break from planning the wedding.”
“The wedding. Why would that have slipped my mind?” He bent to nudge the cue ball. It clicked against another and drifted toward her.
“I don’t know. Because you don’t believe in it?” she offered. “It’s not like Santa Claus, you know. It’s an institution that exists.”
“One of many I’ve always feared winding up in.” He moved close and gave her a stare that asked if she wanted to make something of it.
It was the reason for their breakup: her desire for a secure future and his refusal to commit to one. She stood her ground and lifted her brows, silently asking him if he really wanted to go there.
He settled his hand on her hip, exerting light pressure.
She felt each of his splayed fingers, felt his heat, felt an internal detonation of electric tingles beneath his caress. She refused to give ground but blushed because his touch affected her.
Amusement softened his expression. “I’d like to take this shot.”
“Oh.” She knew that. Pivoting, she slipped out of his sight line and walked to the opposite side of the table, then turned to face him. Speaking to his back would have made for an easier confession, but it wasn’t her style. She waited until he’d taken his shot and straightened before saying, “It’s Deception I came here to talk about, actually. I’m sorry, Con. I messed up.”
“Is Gran all right?” His hand tightened perceptibly on the cue stick.
“Fine. A little upset,” she conceded. “See, there was this guy there. I warned her he didn’t look right, but he got to her when I wasn’t with her and I would have told you sooner, but she just told me half an hour ago—”
He rolled his wrist, urging her to get to the point.
Renny took a deep breath and blurted out, “She bought five thousand dollars’ worth of fake health insurance.”
After a few heartbeats of silence, he said, “Fake. How do you know?”
“I called the number on the card he gave her. It’s a florist in Detroit. Nice, huh? His victims can order a pick-me-up bouquet after they realize they’ve given their money to a criminal.”
“And Gran’s upset? Her heart—”
“Is fine. She’s okay, really. I’m more upset than she is.” Renny folded her arms and hunched her shoulders. Mona didn’t blame her, but Renny blamed herself.
Renny had tried to cover the loss, but Mona wouldn’t take money from anyone, not even when Con tried to pay for things like medical bills. She had flat-out refused Renny’s offer. Mona took pride in her independence and Renny admired her for it, but Renny also knew that because of that independence, the theft of five thousand dollars had had a significant impact on the old woman’s finances. Granted, Con would never let his Gran’s quality of life suffer, but it would be a blow to Mona’s self-esteem if she had to take Con’s money.
Con tilted his head. “I don’t understand why she bought it. She doesn’t need the coverage.”
“You know what she’s like when she decides someone needs encouragement to turn their life around. He spun her a yarn about how he was starting over after being downsized. I’m sorry I didn’t stop her, Con. I know it’s my job to keep her from—”
Con interrupted her. “It’s your job to be on hand if she needs anything, not curb her from making decisions. If she wants to spend her money on health insurance she doesn’t need, that’s up to her, but if it’s been stolen, we should call the police.”
“I did. They can’t do anything without physical evidence. He insisted on cash, walked her to the bank even, and said the policy would come in the mail.”
“There’s nothing else we can do, then?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh.” He bent over the table.
He studied the table, moved to stand near her and took another shot.
“Who are you and what have you done with Conroy Burke?”
“I expected a Tarzan yell and a leap for a vine.”
“Maybe later. I’m kind of busy here.” He indicated the table.
Wow. Ditching Performance Games had mellowed Con out to near comatose. She almost checked for fever but reminded herself he was always obsessed when he was deep into game design. A woman could be giving birth on the pool table and he’d say, “We’ll save that for expert level.”
“I’ll leave you to your game, then.” She was not disappointed and she was not looking for excuses to hang around. Even so, she snuck a peek at this game that had him so enthralled and noticed all the balls were bunched up at one end. Con broke better than that. Intrigued, she started to walk around him for a closer inspection.
He dropped his cue stick like a gate in front of her.
“You’re always so protective when you’re doing R&D. I just want to look.” She lifted the stick and continued to the end of the table. He had used chalk to draw a sailboat on the felt and was filling the outline with snooker balls.
“The object of the game is to keep them out of the holes and put them inside the picture?” she guessed.
“So far it’s a one-person game. I’m trying to figure out how to introduce competition.”
“This is the reason you sold the company, isn’t it? You want to concentrate on designing games.”
“There’s no adventure in selling them.” He spoke from directly behind her. “What do you think?”
She turned, not sure if he was asking for her opinion on the game or on his decision to sell. Before she could form a response, her bones melted at the sight of him. She reminded herself it was perfectly logical to react this way. Just because they were moving in divergent directions didn’t mean Con had lost the qualities that attracted a woman. He smelled good, like men’s shampoo and fresh air, and looked good in a bad boy way. His chin was fuzzed with a couple of days of beard and, even though he could afford Armani, he wore a disgraceful denim jacket with a frayed collar.
Her gaze roamed down the front of his white T-shirt—clean but with a pinhole near the collar—to where it draped over his waistband. A rivet must have fallen away from his jeans because a corner of his pocket was dangling. Lower, the faded denim clung to his thighs before coming apart in loose threads at his knee.
When she got back to meeting his eyes, he was grinning. “Like what you see?”
“Crude. But there’s potential.” Oh, he was dangerous. One minute in his company and she was making leading comments, behaving as recklessly as ever. Time to leave.
He set the cue stick aside and hooked a finger in the shoulder strap of her dress to lightly tug her closer. “Potential?”
“You could do a putting-green version for golf,” she suggested, veering the conversation back to impersonal topics, decelerating her heart rate back to the speed limit.
“I’ll give it some thought. I have other ideas I’d like to hear your opinion on. Now that we’re talking.”
“Hell hasn’t completely iced over, handsome.” She placed her palm in the middle of his chest, forcing him to release her. She had to get away from him before he overwhelmed her. She had hoped this meeting would provide closure, but this wasn’t closure. This was an addict getting a last fix before going into rehab.
“And I don’t have time,” she added, pointing at her watch.
Wicked woman, it wasn’t her watch she wanted him to see. He caught her hand and stared at the diamond on her third finger.
“It looks real.” It made his chest feel tight.
“Of course it’s real.” She tugged her hand out of his grasp and adjusted the ring on her finger as she considered it.
The way she extended her arm made him think of the way the Ring of Reversal card was played in his best-selling game Orion’s Rings. It had the power to ward off all sorts of trouble and Renny appeared to be wielding hers against him. Interesting, since he was pretty sure she had searched him out so they could get back together.
He’d been counting on her coming to him. That way, he could take her back without losing ground. Sure enough, the day before she would have to go through with this marriage she was supposedly planning, here she was. He wasn’t going to gloat, though. He didn’t need to make someone else feel like a loser to enjoy the invincible feeling of winning. He wouldn’t force her to concede. He’d let her play out her hand, intrigued as always by her strategy.
“Is he Italian?” He recalled Gran had first mentioned the engagement when she had called from Italy.
“We met in Venice, but he’s American,” Renny said.
“So you’ve only known him a few weeks?”
“Doesn’t matter. He wants marriage, a house in suburbia, and two-point-three kids, just like me. You might think marriage is the equivalent of going directly to jail without collecting two hundred dollars, but I value it.” She gave him a hard stare for a moment then lowered her gaze. “Sorry. I promised myself I wouldn’t get into this with you. There’s no winner or loser, right? We chose different leagues, that’s all.” She shrugged.
There were moments in any game when the play shifted, when an opponent’s move took you off guard and forced you to re-think from square one. Con had that feeling now.
“If we’re okay over your gran, I’ll get going. I really do have a lot to do. Bye, Con.” Her voice went weak and so did his knees.
“I call bullshit,” he said.
She paused three steps into her exit. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’re bluffing.” Please, God.
“All of it. The engagement. Gran and the con artist. Walking out. You’re hoping I’ll ante up with a diamond ring as big as that one. You want me to marry you.”
“I’ve always admired your optimism, Con.”
And he had always admired her ability to make him laugh while she tugged the rug from under his feet. She wasn’t really getting married, was she?
“Other women have done crazier things, hoping I’d marry them.”
“They don’t know you as well as I do.”
Yeah, she was a laugh riot. Or would have been, if he knew she was joking. He was starting to think this was serious, though. He hated serious.
“Is he rich?”
“No. He’s not particularly poor, either. He’s quite average in all respects.” Her voice thinned; she was insulted.
So was he. Losing never felt as good as winning, but it was easier to take when the competition was worthy.
“You’re getting married—the dullest, most predictable rut anyone can fall into—and you pick a man best described as ‘average?’”
“Yes, Con. Congratulations on escaping my evil trap. I was hoping you’d be happy for me.”
Happy for her? That was the hand she was dealing him? It was as good as a fold, but maybe that’s how he should play this. He was the Prince of Play. He had long ago passed on the game of white picket fences. Apparently, though, it turned Renny’s crank, and he shouldn’t expect her to stay in a relationship where it wasn’t an option. But he hadn’t believed she was serious. About any of it.
Something else occurred to him.
“Are you telling me Gran really got rooked?”
The corners of her mouth dropped like the value of stock in Performance Games after his departure.
“Are you going to yell at me now?”
“Hell, no. I’m going to enlist you. Gran needs that money, Ren. Let’s get it back.” He caught her wrist and started for the door.
Renny jerked him to a stop and broke free of his grip. “She isn’t my only concern right now. Jacob’s waiting for me.”
“My fiancé, Jacob.”
“He’s here?” He pointed toward the front door. “Outside? Right now?”
She folded her arms, instantly defensive. “Yes, outside, right now. I figured I owed you a face to face, since the scam happened on my watch. Now that I’ve told you, Jacob and I can finish preparing for our wedding.”
Renny couldn’t think of anything worse. If Jacob hadn’t insisted on driving, she would have left him at Mona’s, but she supposed it was inevitable. She allowed Con to march her up the aisle between the racked pool tables and through the door. The sunshine blinded her. She squinted to bring the jagged Rockies and solid blue sky into focus.
Greenbowl’s Main Street materialized in all its small town cuteness. Renny had always liked it and knew she’d miss it. She was friends or friendly with virtually everyone, through Con and Mona. Given that, Con should have realized the only stranger on the street would be her fiancé, but he veered away from where Jacob leaned against his Mercedes halfway down the block.
Jacob sent her a questioning look.
Renny shrugged and followed Con as he approached an elderly man tucking a newspaper into the basket on his bicycle handlebars.
“Jacob!” Con exclaimed, startling the old man. “You’re not at all how Renny described you.”
Here we go, Renny thought, and rolled her eyes.
“I’m not in the mood for games today, son.” The man balanced the bicycle between his thighs, ready to push off.
“Right,” Con said. “You’re anxious to get the wedding planned. Is there a reason you’re in such a hurry to get married?”
“Really, Con, another time,” the man said.
“Are you pedaling or riding the handlebars?” Con asked Renny.
“Don’t be a poor loser.” She swung him to face Jacob.
“I haven’t lost yet. Oh, that one,” he said in a false tone of discovery.
“Yes, that one. Doofus.”
“Hello, Con.” Jacob held out his hand as he walked toward them.
Con shook hands. “Of course, you’re the fiancé. You look more like Renny’s type.”
“I have a type?” she began to say, but she stopped herself as she realized how much Jacob resembled Con. She had thought the resemblance superficial when she had met Jacob. Now she saw it went beyond the dark coloring and six-foot height of both men. They both wore their hair long enough to swoop across their foreheads; they both had squared-off jaws, quick smiles and blue eyes. Jacob wore suits and Con avoided them, but that was the most significant difference.
“It’s nice to meet you, Con, but I expected something more original,” Jacob said with amusement.
“So did I.” Con measured Jacob with a glance.
“I beg your pardon?” Jacob asked.
“You should. I was here first.”
“You misunderstand me.” Jacob gestured toward the old man pedaling away. “I meant I expected you to be more original than greeting the senior instead of me. Cary Grant did that in His Girl Friday. The next time you try to insult me, use your own material.”
“Renny, you found yourself a smart man. He knows there’ll be a next time. I underestimated you, Jacob. I guess that means I insulted you after all.”
“Con,” she said through her teeth.
“Renny warned me you might see our engagement as a challenge.” Jacob drew her to his side.
“She’d be disappointed if I didn’t.”
“I’d be astounded,” she assured him. “C’mon, Con. Surprise me by behaving yourself.”
“It’s all right, darling,” Jacob said. “From everything you’ve said about him, I know Con can’t stand losing. He can take a few shots at me if his pride demands it, but nothing he does will keep me from marrying you.”
Renny stiffened. “You can’t say things like that. He takes it as a dare.”
“Jacob and I are trying to reach an understanding,” Con said, nudging her aside and reaching his arm across Jacob’s shoulders, all buddy-buddy like. “Tell me, Jacob, what do you think of a woman who lets a gullible old lady in her care be swindled, then tries to skip town?”
“Just a minute—” Outrage choked off Renny’s defense.
“If you’re referring to your grandmother, Renny spoke to me about the situation.”
“And she’s eaten up by guilt, isn’t she? I really should give her the opportunity to make it up to Gran—rather than fire her, I mean.”
“You can’t fire me,” Renny interjected. “I resigned.”
“You didn’t have to quit over one mistake, cookie. Gran thinks the world of you. She’ll overlook it.”
“I quit when I accepted Jacob’s proposal because we’ll be living in Minneapolis. I’ve been working out my notice for the last three weeks. You knew that. It’s why you had to be back today.” Take that, smart aleck.
“You don’t feel any remorse at all?” he asked.
“Of course I do.” Renny folded her arms. “I feel horrible.”
“Then you owe it to yourself to help sort this out.”
Renny pressed her eyes closed. It was like playing three-card monte. She didn’t know in which direction his argument would go or where it would end up.
“I told you I called the police. They’re investigating, but since there’s no real evidence against Felix—”
“Who is Felix?”
“Felix Newman was the name on the card, the one with the number for the florist in Detroit. Felix’s description will be posted with a warning, for all that’s worth. He could change his looks and keep doing what he’s doing,” she grumbled.
“So you don’t think Gran is the only person he’s suckered?”
“I think he’s making a tidy living with this scam of his, but Mona’s the only one who’s lodged a complaint.” Renny didn’t want to imagine how many others had blithely allowed their money to be stolen. “I checked with the hotel and it was the first they’d heard of it, too.”
“Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”
“Of course, but there’s no guarantee he’d stick around once the police put out their warning.”
“You called them this morning?”
“Just before I came here.”
“You probably spoke to a night clerk. They won’t get their act together before this afternoon at the earliest. We can sort it out ourselves.” Con opened the door of his Spitfire. “Let’s go.”
He could be such a rat sometimes, tempting her like a seasoned carny worker to the roller coaster ride that was time spent in his company. But she was no longer the impulsive woman who would have leapt into that seat and whooped as he pulled away. “I can’t leave my wedding plans and go back to Deception Springs right now.”
“It’s only an hour away. Surprise and speed. That’s how you gain the advantage over your opponent, cookie. Strategy 101.”
“I’m not going back to Deception,” she repeated.
“You don’t mind, do you, Jacob? You’d be helping a lovely old lady. Have you met my grandmother?”
“I’m staying with her while Renny works out her notice.”
“Is she keeping her teeth in? Gran, I mean.”
“Uh, no, actually.”
“That’s great. It means she likes you.” Con slapped Jacob’s shoulder.
“I have things to do,” Renny argued. “Hair, nails, facial—”
“Cut, polish and wax? Quit fishing for compliments.” He turned to Jacob. “Five G’s is a blow to Gran. She’s on a fixed income, you know.”
“Right. But I understand you recently liquidated an asset. Did Renny mention I sell mutual funds? Let me give you my card.”
“Jacob—” Renny put up a hand, stalling his sales pitch. “Con, I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do. I’m getting married tomorrow.”
Con considered her as he slipped Jacob’s card into his wallet, then pushed his wallet into his back pocket. “We’ll take Jake’s car, all go together.”
“Jacob, please tell him we can’t.”
“We could talk investments on the way,” Con suggested.
Renny shot Con a dark look.
Jacob shrugged at Renny. “I know you’re bothered by this whole thing. Would you feel better if you located the man and identified him to the police? There are salons in Deception.”
Con raised his brows as if waiting for her decision. As if she actually had a choice to make.
“But the caterer is coming by with the dishes.” Renny heard how lame it sounded and felt her shoulders sag in defeat. “All right, I’ll go. But I want to be back here by lunch. I can’t leave Mona alone all day when it’s my last one with her.”
“No problem. Go use Shakey’s phone to call Gran and let her know where we’re going.”
“You know they have these fancy inventions called mobile phones, right?” Renny dug hers out of her purse, but it was dead. “Oh. Forgot to dock it. Jacob?”
“I left mine at the house.”
“No problem. It’s not like we’re in a hurry or anything.” Con gave a negligent shrug. “Call over to my place if you’re worried about Gran being alone. Spencer’s there. He’s not doing anything.”
“You need to talk to him,” Renny said as she recalled the hangdog face on Con’s pilot. “He’s had coffee with Gran every morning this week and, between you and me, is worried sick you’re going to let him go now that you don’t need a pilot.”
“Ask him to meet the caterer for you. That should reassure him he’s still needed.”
“Just trying to help a buddy get over his shyness and meet people. Fine, scratch calling Spence, just let Gran know what we’re doing. Go with Renny, Jake. Try Shakey’s coffee. It’s the best in town.” Con leaned on his car and squinted at the sky as if he wanted to soak up Montana sunshine for the rest of the day.
Renny distrusted his idleness. Con’s body might be still, but his mind was always working. Reluctantly, she let Jacob open the door for her and re-entered Shakey’s.
Renny had always imagined the day before her wedding would involve the full princess treatment, but it was turning into conflict with a capital “Con.”
Mona, typically, didn’t want Renny going to any trouble on her behalf. Renny reassured her by telling her she wanted to visit a spa in Deception, but the tiny white lie bothered her.
As she walked out of the pool hall again, her stomach churned with misgivings, but not as bad as before she had told Con. Her conscience had been very bothered at the idea of walking away from Mona’s problem, but a couple of hours in a car with Con and Jacob weren’t likely to provide inner peace.
Con was still leaning on his car and straightened when they appeared.
“Gran all right?” he asked.
“She asked me what I thought you were up to.”
“You said six foot one, right?”
“I said you love her very much so your motive is pure, but after a couple of weeks of doing nothing, you’re bored, and that makes you dangerous.”
“You’re one of the few people besides Gran who gets me. It’s so refreshing.”
“Are we ready to go?” Jacob asked.
“Do you have a map?” Con asked.
“I do.” Jacob walked down the block to his car.
“I knew he was a map man,” Con murmured as Jacob moved out of earshot. “Where’s his sense of adventure?”
“I keep it in the glove box,” Jacob called out, showing them the map he retrieved.
“I’ll bet.” Con chuckled.
Renny opened her mouth to defend Jacob, but paused when she saw Jacob step back and view his car. He scratched his head.
“Problem?” she asked, walking toward him. Con strolled beside her.
“The tires are flat.” Jacob circled his car.
“All of them?” Renny asked, incredulous.
“What are the chances of that?” Con asked. “Hey, I know. Renny and I will go ahead and you can catch up.”
And he could spank her bare bottom while they were at it, because he obviously thought she was born yesterday. “No thanks. I’ll wait for Jacob.”
“You have to come with me. I can’t find a guy I’ve never seen,” Con reminded her.
“So wait for us.”
“It makes more sense for you and me to go ahead. That way, we’ll be done by the time Jacob catches up to us.”
“Finding Felix. Pay attention. What do you say, Jake?”
“I didn’t see the man. I can’t help you.” Jacob bent to press his thumb against one of the tires.
“I mean about our going on ahead.” Con made a face at her behind Jacob’s back and tapped his temple.
“Stop it,” she mouthed.
“I don’t mind either way.” Jacob frowned at the tires. “I can’t understand how all of them . . . .”
“Honestly, Jacob, can’t you see that Con let the air out of your tires so I would have to go with him? You’ll notice his car is a two-seater, so you’ll be left behind.” She waved from Jacob’s flat tires to Con’s Spitfire.
“Renatta Jane O’Laughlin! What are you suggesting? Just because we would be arrested for what we’ve done in that car doesn’t mean I plan to do it again. Unless you want to, of course. You were pretty enthusiastic the first time.”
Renny closed her eyes in a wince. When she opened them, Con had moved to his own car and opened the door. Grinning, he invited her into it with a wave.
Jacob lifted his brows indignantly.
“Ignore him,” Renny urged. “Everything is a game to Con. He doesn’t want me. He wants to win.”
“If there’s still something between you—”
“We might be rushing things.”
“I want to marry you, Jacob.” She curled her fists around the lapels of his jacket and kissed his lips.
He didn’t usually care for public displays of affection—was kind of reserved in private, for that matter—but he was a good kisser. He had warm lips, not too wet. Maybe he didn’t haul her into his arms the way Con would have, but having her butt grabbed during a quick embrace was not the respectable image she sought to attain. She liked that Jacob’s conservative personality curbed her impulsive nature.
“Do you suppose there’s a superstition about sending your bride off with her ex-boyfriend the day before the wedding?” Jacob asked.
“I’m waiting for you, so it doesn’t matter.”
“These tires will take time to fix. You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
“You can’t let him get away with this nonsense.”
“Renny, the quickest way to stop this nonsense is for you to prove you’re not affected. You’re the most reliable woman I know. I trust you completely.”
Reliable? That had to be the dreariest adjective ever applied to her. It shouldn’t bother her when she had struggled so hard to become an upstanding citizen, but she liked to think she still had a splash of color. On the other hand, she wanted to avoid the opposite extreme that Con brought out in her. Maybe Jacob was right. This was the ultimate test. Besides, she was curious to know what Con was trying to accomplish by separating her from Jacob. She and Con could clear the air while she cleared her conscience, all before lunch.
“I won’t disappoint you,” she promised.
“I know you won’t. Where should we meet?”
“Same place we stayed with Gran. I’ll leave a message with the bell desk.”
“All right.” He walked her to the Spitfire.
“So glad you decided to join me,” Con said.
“Don’t get smug or I’ll insist on driving.” She slid into the topless roadster and he slammed the door, rounded the car and climbed over the driver’s door to drop behind the wheel. Gunning the engine, he pulled away.
After waving at Jacob, she straightened in her seat. Con picked up speed and the wind gathered around her feet, billowing her skirt. She pushed it down her thighs.
“Why did you ditch Jacob?” she asked.
“Huh?” He looked from the road to her legs, to the road, back to her legs and, finally, to her face. “Oh. It’s an intervention. He’s not right for you, cookie. When you said ‘average,’ I didn’t realize you meant dull, complacent and a fathead.”
“He is not!”
“What’s he like in the sack?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, realizing as she spoke that it was absolutely the wrong thing to say.
Gravel sprayed as Con pulled over and jammed on the brakes. He stared at her.
“We want to wait until we’re married.”
He raised his brows.
He pulled back onto the road without saying a word.
Renny slouched in her seat, thoughts ominous. Gradually the beauty of the approaching Bitterroots lightened her mood. She loved this part of the country. It was the first place she had felt settled.
And she was leaving it.
Her mood dipped toward sour again.
“So . . . “ He leaned his forearm on the back of her seat and toyed with her blowing hair. Tingles raced down her nape. “Six months without sex?”
“Did I say I’ve been without sex for six months?”
“You’re awfully snippy. Haven’t seen you this uptight since you first came to live with Gran.”
She shifted away. “So you dragged me away from Jacob to tell me you don’t like him. Fine. Opinion noted. I’m still getting married tomorrow. You didn’t have to go to this extreme to make your point.”
“Actually, I had another reason. See, I’ve been giving this situation with Felix some thought.” He scraped the backs of his fingernails under his chin.
“No, you haven’t.”
“Hear me out. I’m thinking of a sting.”
Dormant parts of her sat up and rubbed gleeful hands. A bubble of excited laughter rose to the back of her throat and she fought it back with a cough. She had considered the same thing as soon as Gran had told her what had happened, but she had fought the urge. Walking away from her shameful past had been a rough road, most of it uphill. Any backsliding she’d done had been with the man next to her and, even though he’d found her an exciting companion for a few harmless forays into role playing, he hadn’t been prepared to make that kind of woman his life partner. And he didn’t even know what she’d done! She couldn’t run a sting with Con. It would raise questions about why she was so good at confidence games. Besides, lying to people was a step backward and it would mean lying to Jacob, too. She couldn’t hurt him. She shook her head.
“No,” she said firmly.
“So you’ll think about it,” Con said.
She groaned in frustration.
He grinned. She had hesitated too long before answering him. Part of her wanted to do it. Good, because he really wanted to put the screws to this jackass who had messed with his grandmother.
“I got in this car because I understood all I had to do was point out Felix Newman to the police,” Renny said.
“My way would be more fun.”
“You’ve told me a thousand times you don’t do games with partners.” She had her nose in the air, as if that particular preference of his bothered her.
It bothered him to realize he had automatically unrolled this as a partners game when, as she had pointed out, he usually went on the assumption that there could be only one winner in any game and he was it.
“There’s a difference between partners and allies,” he pointed out, pleased it occurred to him.
She raised her brow, unimpressed.
“Come on, cookie. You liked pretending you were a hooker at the Games Convention.” He had worried she was bored last year when she had moved through the exhibition a lot faster than he had. When he had caught up to her, he had propositioned her loudly enough to raise eyebrows.
“That was just goofing around. Sexual fantasy, in your case.” She lowered her lashes.
He knew she was remembering exactly what kind of sexual fantasies they had explored. He could have dwelt on the memory for the next half hour, but he had to stay focused on the task at hand: persuading her to con a conman without letting on he knew she could do it.
He had never told her he knew where she had come from. All his staff underwent security checks. Renny’s had been more rigorous than most because she had been hired to work with Gran. Digging into her “sealed” record hadn’t been strictly legal, so he hadn’t bothered mentioning it. She appeared to have rehabilitated herself and Gran liked her, so Con had hired her. As for the actual crime, he had pulled some wild stunts in his adolescence, so he didn’t judge.
Even so, he’d given her plenty of opportunities to talk about it. She never had. He wondered if he should bring it up now. No. He couldn’t be sure how she would react. Better to let her believe he simply admired her ability to play a role.
“What about when we pretended to be deckhands on my boat and chartered it to those tourists?”
“It was a nice day and they were nice people.”
“That woman almost pushed me overboard when you told her I was a smuggler!” Their role-playing games always seemed to evolve into a competition over who could be more outrageous.
She stifled a grin.
“See? You loved it.” Renny was always pretty, but when something grabbed her, really caught her attention, she sparkled. He loved seeing her catch fire like that.
She frowned and began chewing the side of her thumb.
He wondered what was making her so tense. Lack of sex, maybe.
“Those were just games,” she said. “It’s not hard to fool a few tourists and some nerdy convention goers.”
“I’m not a nerd.”
“You hide it better than most. The fact is, a professional criminal isn’t going to be as gullible.” She lifted her hands to pull her flying hair off her face.
The pine-scented air cooled as they gained elevation. They were approaching the outskirts of a town big enough to service the ski resort further up the hill.
“Besides, he would recognize me,” she added.
“So we’ll buy you some spray-on hair color and a pair of glasses.”
“With a fake nose and moustache, maybe? You’re dreaming. A superficial disguise isn’t going to fool anyone.”
“Sure it will, especially if you distract him with a bra that pushes your boobs up to here.” He cut his hand into his neck.
“We could try that, too, but it won’t have the same effect.”
She turned her face away.
“I know you’re laughing.”
“No, I’m not.” Her voice was strained.
“Hey!” he said with a zing of discovery as he spotted a Walmart. He slowed to turn into the parking lot. “This’ll have everything we need.”
“Quit telling me why it won’t work. We won’t know unless we give it a shot.” He parked and climbed from the car. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t want to.” She stayed in the car, her brow crinkled in distress.
He pushed the door shut and waited.
She didn’t say anything.
Despite knowing she was tough enough to handle anything, he felt a little compassion. She was more sensitive than he was and usually wound up doing some hand-wringing over the innocent bystanders in their escapades. When she had wanted to come clean to the tourists on his boat, he had distracted her with a quickie in the galley. Sex wasn’t an option this time and railroading her didn’t seem to be working.
“What’s wrong?” he finally asked.
“Doesn’t have to know. It’ll be our secret.”
“Con, you don’t get the concept of marriage at all, do you? Married people don’t keep secrets from each other. A woman doesn’t conspire with one man the day before her wedding to another.”
“So tell him what you’re going to do.”
“Because it’s not exactly . . . it’s kind of . . . regular people don’t—”
“I have a feeling you’re trying not to insult me. Look, I already know Jake lacks imagination. What’s his idea of a good time? Dinner and a movie?”
“Believe it or not, the ability to arrange an afternoon in a shark cage is not the top item on my list of qualities I need in a man.”
“You told me you liked it. Geez, you try to show a woman a good time . . . . “
“Con, you have a wonderful imagination, but not everyone is capable of living on that same plane of existence. I enjoy visiting, but Jacob wouldn’t understand. His mother heads the women’s group at her church and his father is a professor of ethics at the university. These people are ultra-conservative, ultra-ordinary, ultra-respectable.”
Ultra-anal-retentive. “And that’s what you see in him? His parents?” He leaned down so his forearms rested on the top of his door.
She looked at her hands and tested the edge of her thumbnail. The cuticle was a mess but the nail was perfect. “I’m just saying he wouldn’t understand.”
What she didn’t say, but what he thought she meant, was that she wouldn’t measure up to their expectations.
He had felt that way once. He understood the longing, the desire to stifle your true self to gain a glimmer of acceptance. He had learned to walk his own path, though, to quit living his life based on other people’s opinion of him. He wouldn’t hold onto a multi-million dollar company just because people expected him to and he wouldn’t succumb to marriage because the prevailing attitude said it was the next step in a relationship.
“You can only be who you are, Renny.”
She flicked her hair back and lifted her chin. “Then I’m a woman who does the right thing.”
“And what this guy did to Gran wasn’t right.”
The defiance in her eyes faded and she looked away.
He let her chew on that a minute, along with her thumb, before he straightened.
“I’m going shopping. If you don’t come with me, I’m likely to get you buck teeth and an ugly hat.” When she didn’t move, he added, “At least wear a disguise so when you spot Felix, he doesn’t recognize you.” He started walking.
Behind him, he heard the click of the car door opening. He slowed his step but didn’t turn. He was hiding his grin of satisfaction.
“Some trapper gets the idea to dam up the hot water seeping out of a fissure in a rock and a couple hundred years later it turns into this abomination. I thought people came here for their health, not shopping,” Con said, as he drove down the main street of Deception Springs.
Renny looked for Felix’s blond head among the tourists shuffling in front of shops that sold everything from batik sarongs to llama-wool sweaters. Squeezed between the cluttered sidewalk displays were the modest fronts of banks, jewelry stores and art galleries, hinting at a greater wealth beneath the town’s grassroots image.
“I think the Native Americans were the first to use the mineral waters, for medicinal purposes, but I imagine they got a couple of sacks of flour when they led the pioneers here. This is America. Healthcare is a business.”
“Gran likes this place?” Con asked.
“Loves it. She figures everyone here has a screw loose and it’s her personal mission to tighten it. When a waitress lectured her on saturated fats, she said, ‘Which end did you stick your bran muffin in this morning? I asked for butter and all I hear outta your mouth is crap.’”
“It’s the perfect place for health scams,” Renny said. “New people coming all the time, some of them already worried about their health. They’re willing to place their faith in anything. When a respectable-looking man offers them a deal on health insurance, with no exam, they snap it up, go home and wait for a policy that never comes.”
“And if they do follow up, they talk to a florist in Detroit.”
“Exactly. By then they’re too mortified to tell anyone they were duped.”
“Sounds like Felix has got a good set up. He’ll probably stay for a while.”
She rolled her shoulder. “Maybe. The hotel promised to issue a description and warnings, too. Like I said before, he might get spooked and leave, or he might be carrying on with a different look.”
Like her. She touched her temple self-consciously. Her coppery hair, porous from months of traveling in the sun, had sucked up the wash-out color she had applied in the Walmart washroom. It was a darker shade of brunette than Con’s natural color. With her hair gathered in a silk bandanna, and her skin still tanned, she looked like the gypsy woman who’d read her tarot while she’d been in Europe, right down to the risqué neckline, she decided, as she glanced down at her dress.
She had ripped off the frills and hemmed the skirt with a length of masking tape. She had also dropped a pair of falsies into her bra so her breasts overflowed the tops of the cups and the bodice of her dress strained across them.
The alteration had been a series of quick decisions, an impulsive desire to test her resourcefulness. Re-making herself in seventeen minutes had been a kick and Con’s double take when she had walked out of the ladies’ room had been a nice bonus, but she already regretted the changes. The hair color wasn’t going to wash out before her wedding photos tomorrow and twenty years from now she would be wondering what she had been thinking. Worse, an hour from now she would have to explain to Jacob what she had been thinking and the answer would be that she hadn’t been thinking at all.
Maybe she could have a professional change it back before he caught up to them. She would have to delay Jacob to give herself more time, though.
“I need to phone Jacob.” She freshened her lipstick and slipped on her mirrored sunglasses.
“We need to make an entrance in this town, spend some money.”
“So we won’t have to look for Felix. It’ll be less obvious if we let him follow the smell of cash.”
“I’d like to get in touch with Jacob first.”
“Cookie, if you climb out of this car and ask for the nearest phone, people are going to forget us before you drop the quarter in the slot.”
“Turn here. That’s the hotel we want.”
He started to make the turn, shied at the last instant and kept going, earning a honk from a fellow tourist for his indecision.
“That one’s no good.”
“Jacob expects to meet us at the Glacier View.” She looked over her shoulder at the hotel and saw the white media van parked in front of it. It had a big number six on it, along with the Montana Minutes logo. “Oh.”
For all Con’s outrageous behavior, he didn’t go looking for attention from reporters, particularly the woman who worked for that show.
“We need a busy hotel. That one looks good,” he said of the one kitty corner.
“Why a busy one?”
“We need an audience. When I pull up in front, I want you to make sure everyone knows I’m rich enough to afford you.”
She dropped her shades down her nose and regarded him over the lenses. “Why does everything have to be over the top with you?”
“Because it’s fun.”
“You understand I’m going to find Felix, ask the police to arrest him, and leave town, right?”
“You understand Felix will be out on bail in an hour and will continue hurting others the way he hurt Gran, right?”
“Can’t we behave like adults this time?” she asked.
“Renny, that’s so boring.”
“But I can’t pretend—”
“Sure you can. Use the force.”
“Only geeks quote Star Wars.”
“So I’m a geek. That’s why I have to pay for sex.” He grinned as he rode the car gently over a speed bump.
Pursing her lips, she studied the people milling beneath the portico of the Juniper Hotel. Parking attendants and doormen, likely students and musicians in their other lives, mingled with hotel guests wearing bright fleece sweatshirts and unscuffed hiking boots.
Con’s flippant advice to “use the force” tickled the back of her mind, leading her to thoughts of her mentor in the con game: her mother. She never saw her, rarely spoke of her, hardly let herself think of her because shame and disappointment overwhelmed her every time. But as Con braked the car and a valet opened her door, she remembered her mother bragging, It’s how you sell yourself. The sell is more important than the con.
Now she was irritated. Con didn’t know it, but he was forcing her to go places in the past she preferred to avoid.
“You want to make an entrance?” she muttered.
Exposing her leg to the lace of her panties, she climbed from the car and said loudly, “Is this the hotel you’re buying?”
Every pair of feet froze for a split second as Renny’s words bounced around the shelter of the portico. After a moment, people rustled into motion, but Con sensed their attention still on Renny. Lots of furtive glances and zero conversation.
Hiding his smile of satisfaction, he slammed his car door and came to her side.
“Babe, what did I tell you about discretion?” he asked, his tone exasperated.
“Oh,” Renny said, eyes wide and voice not lowered at all. “When you said I wasn’t supposed to talk about why we were coming here, I thought you meant your impotence.”
For a moment, the only sound was a passing car while everyone had a look at the guy with erectile dysfunction.
Well played, he thought, and silently vowed to trump her next deal.
“Let’s check in—” he began.
She balked as he tried to take her arm.
“You promised to buy me some sparklies. Don’t you dare back out now!” She talked fast, not giving him an opportunity to jump in. “Remember? You asked me to come here with you and I said, ‘Why bother? You don’t need me until you’re cured,’ and you said you’d make it worth my while. Well, I’m here and I want something pretty to wear for dinner.”
A knot of people to their right stopped pretending they were studying a brochure and stared outright.
Con turned to the doorman. “Jewelry store?”
“Inside, sir.” The young man’s voice strained with curiosity. He smiled when Con slipped him a tip.
Her smugness prodded the competitor in Con. Gripping her shoulders in a firm hug, he steered her through the glass doors. “Having fun yet?” he asked in an undertone.
She cleared her throat. “Don’t distract me. I don’t want to lose character.”
She had to be dreaming if she thought he wouldn’t take that as a direct challenge. He loosened his hold as they passed through the door of the jewelry store.
The décor was supposed to resemble the gold rush era, with uneven floor planks and a rusty scale dripping glitter. The image was spoiled by several security cameras and the smell of ammonia from the spray an employee was using to polish the display cases.
Renny cooed over chunky stones in fussy settings but would have settled for a modest string of pearls. Con overrode her and pointed to several flashy pieces, ending up with a necklace, brooch, bracelet and ring that didn’t match and would have paid Gran back several times.
Renny turned her back to the display case and gave Con a “What are you doing?” face.
Con handed his platinum card to the clerk, enjoying both the flush he caused in Renny’s cheeks and the fluster he caused behind the counter as the employee handed the card to his boss before searching for boxes beneath the display case.
“Is that enough sparklies?” Con goaded.
“You’re a lunatic,” she said in an undertone. Her lips quivered, almost caught by laughter.
He raised his brows, waiting for her to break.
She showed him her cheek, clinging to the spoiled mistress role. Just.
Well, shoot, he almost had her. He’d give her another nudge. Tipping her into his arms, he kissed her, half expecting a knee to the groin.
What he got was a start of surprise and a soft shudder that melted her tension. Her hands slid up his chest and linked behind his neck as she curled into the embrace and pressed his head down, sealing their mouths.
Deprived of her for months, he deepened the kiss, found her bottom lip and gently sucked. Her tongue touched his, causing a thump of sensation in his chest. Warmth pooled through his belly and into his groin while their mouths broke apart only to meet again with parted lips, like starvation victims slaking their hunger with bite after bite of sumptuous fare.
He had kissed her on impulse, for their audience, to catch her off guard and see what would happen, to see if she could hold onto her role. He had kissed her for a hundred reasons, not expecting that his control would slip, his mind would fog and his thoughts would narrow to a single goal: hold onto her and never let her go.
Before he lost it enough to make lewd use of the nearest flat surface, he pulled away, wondering only then if her response had been real or for show.
Renny drew back. Her eyes fluttered open and her gaze fixed on her hands where they rested against his chest.
Con touched his thumb to the corner of her mouth, erasing a smudge of coral pink. He allowed his fingertips to linger on her cheek, appreciating the softness of her skin, coaxing her to lift her chin and look at him.
Slowly she backed away, but her gaze stayed on her left hand. On Jacob’s ring.
He caught her wrist, gently worked the ring off and dropped it into his shirt pocket.
She parted her lips to protest and he leaned forward to kiss her again, lightly, then touched her mouth with his fingertip, keeping her silent while he reached for the new ring on the counter.
When he would have slipped it on to replace Jacob’s, she drew her left hand away and offered her right.
If he wanted to make a serious effort to get her back, now was the moment to drop to his knee and do it properly. The ring was a staircase of emerald baguettes curved around a highly set opal. Not what anyone would regard as a typical engagement ring. Nevertheless, the symbolism would be there, if he placed it on her left hand now.
Panic stung his veins.
Purchasing this ridiculous pile of jewelry had been less about playing the rich man for Felix and more about making her laugh, but neither of them was laughing. His palms began to sweat and his chest felt constricted. He slid the ring down the third finger of her right hand.
Her lips quivered and went flat. Disappointment? Maybe. A poorly played hand on his part? No question. But he had scored a point with that kiss.
She reached for the necklace on the counter and it slithered through her fingers, taking the bracelet and brooch with it onto the floor.
Sagging into a crouch, she reached for them.
Con squatted in front of her, held out the brooch. It was a gold domino, the dots blue sapphires.
“You should buy some decent shoes,” she said quietly.
He had changed into clothing from the luggage in his trunk: a short-sleeved shirt, patterned like a blue and green checkerboard, and tailored dark green pants. He had shaved while he’d waited for Renny at Walmart, but hadn’t bothered replacing his disreputable sneakers.
“I want you.” He was willing to make the admission because he was so close to getting her on his terms.
“You had me. Now you don’t.”
“I almost did, a minute ago.”
She stayed crouched beside him, the necklace coiled in her lap while she fastened the bracelet. “We don’t have time for a post-mortem, Con. I’m going to find a phone and call Jacob. You should buy some shoes.”
She was brushing aside their kiss, their history, the desire still between them. Everything. He used humor to deflect his hurt.
“You’re sexy when you get bossy.”
“Now you’re just being a tease.”
She opened her mouth but a bell pinged as someone entered the store, making them both turn their heads.
Jacob walked in.