The door swung open before he had a chance to ring Molly’s bell. A woman dressed in a yellow halter top, knee-length pink shorts, and cowboy boots stood in the filtered light. Two long gray-flecked braids hung from her head like thick ropes rubber-banded above frayed edges. Willie Nelson in drag came to mind.
“Hi, you must be Nick. I’m Molly’s Aunt Vi. Come on inside. She’s running late.”
He pulled off his sunglasses and hooked them on the neck of his T-shirt. Then he followed her into a foyer where an oak combination coat rack and metal umbrella stand occupied one wall. Even to his untrained eye, the piece looked like an expensive antique. A staircase led to the second floor. He followed Molly’s aunt and entered what he assumed was the downstairs part of her living quarters.
Apparently, she was a huge fern fan. They dangled in beaded slings from every corner of the living room. A couple more hung in muted sunlight that spread in through a pair of windows. A huge macramé owl, perched on a yard-long branch, took up most of the opposite wall. Enough candles to set the neighborhood on fire, if anyone was crazy enough to light them all at once, occupied a coffee table. Another table held a hookah and a crystal ball.
Holy shit. This was the woman who raised Molly.
“Have a seat.” She pointed to a brown overstuffed sofa that looked as if it could swallow a small person. He sank down into it and wondered if he’d need a lifeline to haul himself back up.
“Let me find you something to drink.”
She spun out of the room before he had a chance to forestall her and returned a minute later with two glasses of something yellow. He hoped it was only lemonade. Probably a tree half the height of the house grew in the backyard and provided Molly and her aunt with enough vitamin C to ward of any forthcoming plagues. The two of them should get together with his mother sometime. On second thought, maybe not. She handed him a glass.
“Do you live in the city?” Vi eased into a plump companion chair.
“Yes, I do.”
“You rent, correct?”
“Yeah.” His gaze strayed to the crystal ball. Nah.
“Do you play poker?”
“Excuse me?” He put his free hand on his knee and leaned forward.
“Do you play cards?”
“Not too often.” Occasionally, he played gin rummy with his father. He took a sip of his drink and his lips puckered. Apparently, he was in a sugar-free zone. An organic garden probably flourished behind the house as well.
“That’s the reason Molly’s late this morning. She overslept. We had one heck of a poker game here last night. It didn’t break up until midnight. Molly was the big winner. She cleaned my daughter and me out.”
Yeah, he already knew she was pretty skillful at relieving people of their money. “How much did she win?”
“Plenty. The last pot had a buck forty in it. She won it with a straight flush. Drew an inside card, too.”
“That was luck.” Chunky ice cubes, the kind produced by metal trays, filled his glass. His hand began to freeze. He looked around for a place to set down his drink.
“Partly luck. It also took some skill.”
No wonder Molly was so good at stonewalling. What was she, some sort of card shark? He did a quick recalculation on how long it might take him to lure her away from his tenants and onto his team. Did he have that much time?
“Of course, she snagged three of the four wild cards. When that happens, no one else has a chance.”
Wild cards. He smiled.
Molly stood in the open doorway and held a cellophane-wrapped food basket cradled in her arms. Her hair fluffed out from her head in a mass of soft, copper curls. She wore a yellow, orange, and white flowered sundress with narrow shoulder straps and red buttons down the front. Her toenails were painted the same cherry red that matched the shade on her lips and fingernails. It showed off well with her flat-heeled sandals. The little white jacket she carried didn’t seem like it would do much to keep her warm two hundred feet above the ground. Maybe if she shivered from the chill, she’d let him hold her in his arms. Then maybe he’d get lucky and find out if her lipstick tasted like cherries. Just imagining it signaled an anatomical wakeup call. Jeez, and in front of the aunt. What the hell am I thinking?
He had only one chance to haul himself out of the sofa or come across like an incompetent ass. It occurred to him to knock off a few candles and park his drink on the coffee table. Instead, he flexed his leg muscles, tightened his grip on the glass, and put enough energy into his movement to propel himself up and out of the beast’s embrace.
Molly stepped into the room.
“Very good.” She grinned. “You didn’t spill a drop. It takes most people at least three tries to spring up out of that thing.”
“It’s all in the legs.” He tried not to sound smug as if he performed an Olympic feat.
A few steps brought him close enough to touch her, which he had the sense not to do. She smelled faintly of apricots. He breathed in the scent. Then he remembered he was supposed to be a gentleman and not out to seduce her.
“Here, let me hold that.” He took the food basket out of her arms.
Her aunt stood up with no trouble, but then he figured she had years of practice extricating herself from the furniture. As she relieved him of his glass, she gave her niece a tiny nod. Molly frowned. He assumed all the facial maneuvering had something to do with him.
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