“This is ridiculous,” Birdie said. “Answer your cell.”
Beside the empty bowl of mashed potatoes, Hugh’s cell phone vibrated across the table like a Mexican jumping bean. Yanking his arms from the soapy water in the sink, he stalked over and read the display panel. He tossed the phone down.
It was the third call he’d ignored.
“Why not pick up?” she asked. “It might be important.”
“It’s not.” He motioned toward her plate. “Are you done?”
“I’m stuffed. The plate’s yours.”
He’d gone all out serving Thanksgiving dinner. They’d eaten in a bubbly delirium after the discovery in the storage room. The meal would’ve been perfect if not for the phone calls he’d refused to pick up.
Propping her chair against the wall, Birdie lifted the key and turned it in the light. She tried to appreciate the scintillating blood-red ruby at the base of its heart-shaped head even as her attention strayed to Hugh.
Discovering the key had brought a new, if tenuous, intimacy to their relationship. She’d confided in him about the hidden rubies, and he seemed worthy of her trust. Throughout dinner, they’d kept the conversation centered on the treasure hunt even as the air grew thick with sexual longing. And no wonder. They’d nearly made love on top of one of the tables in the storeroom. If Hugh hadn’t noticed the heart-shaped design in the wall, they would have gone at it like rabbits.
A close call. Birdie twirled the key between her fingers. With the thrill of discovery now passed, she was riddled with second thoughts. Turning their normally combative relationship into something more was a stupid move. She was starting to like Hugh—the boyish side he’d displayed in the storeroom, the sensitivity he unleashed at unpredictable moments. Why muck up the works by sleeping with him? Sex was supposed to be a mindless release, a few hours’ diversion from the loneliness of her days. This time was different. There was more at play here than mere lust.
If she slept with Hugh she wouldn’t be able to keep her emotions safe. Risking an entanglement, with the rubies at stake, was not a good plan.
Once she found the gems she’d leave Ohio. It was a cardinal rule. Do the crime and get out. Only, she’d leave part of her heart with Hugh—a man she’d never see again.
Worried, she brought the key near. There hadn’t been a clue this time, no poetry to lead her forward. The velvet pouch had contained only the key. What did it open?
At the sink, Hugh lifted a serving platter from the suds. “Want to give me a hand with the dishes?”
She traced the key’s heavy brass teeth. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
“When I was growing up, we had a rule. The cook never cleaned up the mess.”
“Good thing I didn’t grow up in your house.” She rolled her eyes when his cell phone did the fandango across the tablecloth. “Why don’t you answer it?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
“Who calls four times on Thanksgiving? I’d go with ‘parents’ but most give up on the third try.” Not that her mother ever got in touch. Her father…maybe. If Tanek wasn’t too wrapped up in a prison poker game he’d ask the guards for the phone.
“It’s not my parents,” Hugh said. “It’s Timothy Ralston, a reporter at the Register.”
“You’ve never mentioned him.”
“I try not to think about him.”
The venom in Hugh’s voice got her complete attention. Or maybe it was the attractive way his eyes flashed. His version of anger was far too sexy.
“What have you got against the guy?” she asked, putting her libido into a fist-hold.
“Think Hercules without a brain. The guy writes fluff. He consults his astrologer before doing an interview. He picked up these weird crystals in Sedona on his last vacation, and keeps them on his desk like a strange rock formation growing beside his keyboard. He’s into yoga.”
“So Ralston has a mystical side,” she replied, amused by his petulance. “No danger there.”
“The family’s loaded. Ralston buys a new Maserati every April. This year’s baby is cherry red.”
“He’s rich. What’s the big deal?”
“Daddy’s furniture chain pours thousands into advertising at the Register, which is why Ralston was hired. The City Editor is happy to feed him ideas. Rich boy’s job will always be secure.”
Hugh’s face clouded. “Ralston is vying for my job.” He thrust a pot into the water and scrubbed with a vengeance. “If I can’t dig up enough scum for the Perini exposé, I’ll be in the unemployment line permanently.”
“Stop being dramatic. Someone else will hire you.”
“I’ve been thrown off five newspapers. Think leprosy. No one will touch me.”
She’d love to touch him and the thought sent warmth leaping across her skin. Struggling away from the salacious possibilities, she slipped the key back into the pouch. The war between her urge to comfort Hugh and her libido sure wasn’t comfortable. Who was she kidding? She didn’t want to offer friendly affection—she wanted more.
Of course, his livelihood wasn’t simply at risk. If he didn’t publicize the theft of the website money, he’d lose his job to a journalist he apparently despised. Rough break.
And what about Anthony Perini? The guy might have a perfectly good reason for taking the money. Uncomfortable with her line of thinking, Birdie rose from her chair. There were all sorts of reasons why someone stole cash. A guy might be desperate. Or maybe he didn’t understand how to live a straight and narrow life. It didn’t mean he was bad. He might be a good person, deep down.
She might be a good person.
“How can I help?” she asked, tentatively stroking his back. “If Ralston calls again, I’ll shout obscenities into the phone. Or threaten him—whatever you need. I’ll steal the tires off his Maserati. That’ll clip his wings.”
Hugh dried his hands and eased her into his arms. “You’d do that for me?” He stroked her cheek, his fingertips damp from the dishwater. His touch was gentle and sweet, a balm for the doubt shuttling through her soul. “I’ve never been with a professional thief. Most of the women I know think of it as a hobby.”
“I can set up classes, give your dates some pointers.”
“You have a cruel streak, Birdie.” He rubbed his nose across hers, a leisurely movement. Her pulse tripped. The irreverent turn of the conversation appeared to lift his spirits, which was a relief. “How do you feel about breaking and entering? Make off with Ralston’s astrology books and it’ll derail him.”
“Whatever you want.”
He cupped her face, suddenly serious. “I want to make love to you.”
“I want that, too,” she said, and her heart overturned.
He kissed her deeply to drive the point home. Mired between lust and common sense, she slid her hands from his shoulders. If they made love, she’d be at risk of falling for him—
He drew back an inch. “What is it? If I’m going too fast—”
“You’re not.” She rested her palms on his chest. The heavy staccato of his heartbeat warmed her blood. “What happens after we sleep together? I mean…I don’t know what I mean.”
“Are you asking if we’ll keep seeing each other?” He pressed his thumb to the side of her mouth then slowly rubbed her lower lip. The movement was heady, erotic, and her knees threatened to dissolve. “I’m not the one living on the road. I can handle seeing you on a day-to-day basis.”
“So we’d have a relationship?” Hugh wasn’t the type to stick with a lover for more than a few weeks, which should’ve been fine.
“We can try,” He said. “If you’re asking for a show of hands, I vote you stick around Liberty.”
“I can’t. Not after I find the rubies.”
“Stop looking for them.” He tried for a light note, but his hold on her ribcage tightened. “Problem solved.”
“It’s better if you don’t fall for me.”
“Because you’re leaving? Or because you aren’t worth it?”
Harsh questions, they were distressingly accurate. Anger scalded her cheeks, but she held it in check. She wasn’t worth it. She could pretend he was the problem, a guy closing in on forty who was married to his job. But she knew better.
“I don’t stick.” With shaky movements, she withdrew his hands from her waist. “To people, places—I leave. If I get bored or scared, I take off.”
“You can change.”
“No one changes, Hugh. People bullshit you into thinking they’ll try, but they never pull it off.”
The comment stole the fire from his eyes. Gauging his reaction, she felt nervous and wavery. In some awful way, she’d revealed the essence of her life’s creed. Her take on life was small-minded and cruel.
Hugh rocked back on his heels. Behind tightly clenched lips, he rolled his tongue. He looked at her like she was something he’d found on the sole of his shoe, something sticky and foul.
“Jesus, you’re cold. Where’s the end-game, Birdie?”
“Think you’ll always get away?” He put ice in his voice, enough to urge her to flee. “One day, you’ll get caught. Three strikes and you’re out. Or didn’t you get the memo?”
Somehow she stood her ground. “I know how the law works.”
“For other criminals. You don’t get how it applies to you.”
“This time is different,” she snapped, and immediately regretted the words.
“Oh, man.” Hugh dug his fingers into his scalp. “Let me guess. This is the big heist that’ll make you go straight.”
She wanted to agree, but her throat closed. What right did he have to mock her? The rubies were worth thousands. In one theft, she’d make more than she earned in a year. In five years. She’d pawn the gems and start over.
Not over. She’d begin. A new life. She’d become a new person.
People never change.
She’d stumbled into an abyss. Frightened, she wondered if he was right. She’d live off the rubies for a few months or a year. Then she’d go back to the only life she knew, the habits of a lifetime impossible to break.
Sick to the bone, she was spared raising a flimsy defense by the light rap on the door. Hugh flinched. Then he tore his gaze from hers and went to answer.
A man’s voice tumbled into the living room. Hugh joined in, his conversation tight and unsettled. The tension rising off his voice was no comparison to the anxiety churning her thoughts. Analyzing her dreams too closely put them at risk of disappearing. If they were a mirage, what did she have?
Clumsily, she pushed herself off the edge of the counter. She glanced at the sink, then the door. Leave for an hour? Maybe while she walked around town, Hugh would cool off. Maybe they both would.
She was halfway across the kitchen when a man entered.
He was a little younger than Hugh, with curly brown hair and an easy smile. “Birdie, right?” He offered his hand. “I’m Anthony. Blossom’s father.”
She felt weightless, but she managed to shake his hand.
They made small talk for a moment about Blossom’s penchant for hanging around the restaurant after school. “If she ever gets in your hair, tell her to go home,” Anthony said.
“She’s never a problem. We like having her around.” Birdie tried for a smile but her mouth was parched and her lips stuck to her teeth. Hugh was managing not to look at her, and his displeasure cut her deep. “Congratulations, by the way. I hear your wedding was lovely.”
“Thanks.” He turned back to Hugh. “Blossom says you’re in a hurry to write the article and I don’t want to hold you up. I’d do it now, but I’m on a beer run. There are forty people at my parents’ house, and we ran out of brew. Tomorrow’s a wash, but what about Saturday? We can meet after I help set up the Festival of Lights.”
Hugh shrugged, his expression edgy. “There’s no hurry. You just got back from your honeymoon.”
Anthony grinned. “Mary’s spending the weekend rearranging the house while I help with the festival.”
“Take your time. We’ll do the interview on Monday.” Clearly Hugh was stalling, even if Anthony couldn’t see it. “I’ll call you.”
“You’re sure it can wait?”
Needing to prolong the conversation, Birdie asked, “What’s the Festival of Lights?” Once Anthony left, she’d be alone with Hugh and his painfully dead-on observations of her.
“It’s the Liberty holiday parade. You’re going, aren’t you? It’s this Sunday in the Square.”
“Maybe I’ll go with Delia.” She’d do anything to stay out of the apartment and away from Hugh.
The men talked for a few minutes then Anthony headed out. Birdie wavered in the foyer before following Hugh into the living room. They stared at each other in an uneasy silence.
When it seemed he’d had enough, he grabbed his coat off the couch. “I’m going out for a drink.”
For a second he hesitated, a hint of apology on his face. She quashed it by starting back to the kitchen.
He walked out, leaving a sad little silence in his wake.
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