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“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.