The number of relationships Birdie had enjoyed with men roughly equaled the number of U.S. presidents elected during her adulthood. Pathetically few. And there was something every relationship shared. A drifter or a grifter, the man held her emotions for ransom then stole her cash on his way out.
Sliding her arms around Hugh’s neck, she knew this time was different.
Oh, Hugh was all wrong for her. The man had mistake written across his devil-dark eyes. It didn’t help that he tasted good and smelled even better. The way he was fondling her hips was sheer heaven—no, that wasn’t the problem. What was?
He was the first man she’d ever known who wasn’t planning to clean her out. He truly was honorable in a cocky, take-no-prisoners way.
His decency put her heart at risk.
“This is a mistake,” she murmured against his ear. She considered protesting further, sank beneath the sensations, and arched her back. On a groan, he grabbed the hem of her turtleneck and rolled it up. “This isn’t the right time for a relationship. Your job is on the line, and I have to find the rubies.”
Hugh lifted his head, his black hair engagingly mussed. Had she been running her fingers through his locks? It was hard to be sure with her attention zooming in on the hot journey his hands were making up her ribcage.
His fingers shaking, he wrenched her turtleneck over her bra. “We all make mistakes. Live and learn.” He let out a moan that rippled straight up her spine. “Birdie, you’re gorgeous. Thirty-six double D. My God.”
She stilled. “How the hell do you know my bra size?”
“Some things a man learns.”
She reloaded with a comeback, which fizzled when he flipped up her bra. His palms landed on the base of her back, hauling her closer. Dizzy with pleasure, she was dimly aware of his eyes drifting open as hers drifted shut.
“If that isn’t strange. Birdie, look.” The provocative feeling of his mouth on her skin withdrew. “See the design on the wall?”
She wrenched her eyes open. “Design?” She had designs on him, actually.
“Over there,” he said, nipping at her ear.
“Huh?” Her bra was twisted around her turtleneck. She looked like a lust-bitten whore on her way to the gallows.
Hugh struggled into a standing position. “Look at the wall. See the bricks? They’re darker than the others. They make a pattern.”
“How can you talk about patterns at a time like this?” Yanking her shirt down, she craned her neck. No easy feat when you were lying on your back. “Next you’ll admit you edit news articles while doing the nasty.”
“Are you planning on doing the nasty with me, babe? God, that makes me happy.”
“Vegetables, Hugh. Stick with the program.”
“Whatever you say, Carrot.” He scratched his head, grinning. Then he bent and nibbled on her collarbone. “And by the way, I’m an investigative journalist. I get paid to notice something out of the ordinary.” He started toward the wall. “This will sound crazy, but I swear the pattern looks like a big…heart.”
She clambered from the table. Her blood was still thick with longing, but she managed to clear her head. The clue, the one she’d found in the patriotic bunting, rang in her ears.
Brick by brick, my love
My life built alone without you
“It’s the clue, the last one I found!” She stumbled past a cluster of end tables for a better look. “It was about love. Love, hearts—wow. Look at that!”
Hugh was right—the pattern did form a heart. The wall was made of bricks in many colors, but the rust-colored bricks stood out visibly against the rest. On instinct, she dropped to her knees beneath the heart’s arrowed base.
Blood pounded in her ears. The brick, the one right beneath the heart, was loose. She jiggled it and chips of mortar pinged off the floor. Tension wound across her shoulders. With a gentle tug, she worked the brick out.
Hugh was at her side in an instant. “What is it? What’s inside?”
Boyish delight flooded his voice. Smiling up at him, she reached inside. “Give me a sec, will you? I don’t feel anything, just empty space.” An involuntary shiver bounced through her shoulder blades. “I hope there aren’t any spiders. I hate anything that moves faster than I do, especially if it has eight legs.”
“Fear not, Turnip. Move back. I’ll search the portal.”
“And ruin my fun?” She giggled. “Get away!”
The edges of the brick were rough, and cool to the touch. Straining, she reached in further and let out a gasp. Her fingers connected with something soft, a cloth of some kind. What if she’d found ten rubies? A dozen? She’d pawn the gems in Atlanta or Dallas and use the money to go legal. She’d buy a house, a sweet bungalow with flower boxes on the windowsills…
“Birdie, come on already!”
“Got it.” With exquisite care, she drew the bag out.
It was purple, the color of royalty, and made of velvet.
“Are the rubies inside?” Hugh crouched beside her, a lock of hair brushing his brows. He looked like a boy on a treasure hunt. “Open it up!”
“Give me a kiss for luck,” she replied, steering his lips to hers. He obligingly darted his tongue into her mouth and reached for her breasts. She squirmed away.
She’d swear he was holding his breath. As she was, as she took the heavy yellow cord between her fingertips and drew the bag open. No rubies inside. Disappointed, she withdrew a brass key. It was similar to the key for the storeroom, with a heart-shaped head and four teeth.
She looked closer and her emotions rebounded. “Do you see that?” Awestruck, she traced her fingers across the base of the heart. Across the stone residing there.
It was a glittering, blood red gem. A ruby.
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