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Authors: Susan Andersen

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BOOK: Playing Dirty
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CHAPTER ONE

I’m not sure if I just made a really savvy move—or the biggest blunder of my life.

Present day, the ninth of November

T
HE BASTARD
was late. Ava Spencer cursed the man she was waiting on as she paced the front foyer of the Wolcott mansion, alternately hugging herself against the cold and trying to rub some warmth into her arms through her coat sleeves. The place had been closed up for several weeks, and between the wind currently buffeting the mullioned windows and the rainstorm that had blown through earlier, leaving a Seattle-centric damp-to-the-bone chill in its wake, she was freezing her ass off.

She would’ve turned on the heat, but there was little point. If the guy ever deigned to get here, she’d be showing him the mansion from attic to wine cellar. And while Jane kept the front parlor and hidden closet in Miss Agnes’s upstairs sitting room climate-controlled for the preservation of the Wolcott collections that weren’t currently sold or on loan to museums, it would take until noon tomorrow to warm up the rest. And although she had turned on every light in the house, the illusion of warmth from the yellow glow of the lamps
and overheads didn’t come close to replacing the real thing.

A laugh that went a little wild escaped her. Like
that
was the crucial issue here. Because…
It’s not some
guy,
Av. It’s Cade Calderwood Gallari.

Jeez Marie. She couldn’t
believe
she’d agreed to this. So, yes, she was concentrating on the minutiae for all she was worth to keep from thinking about him. Because it was too freaking late to second-guess herself now.

Wasn’t it?

She froze for an arrested second. Hell, no, it wasn’t! The heavy feeling in her stomach lightening, she snatched up her purse and started down the hallway to the kitchen. Its exterior door was the direct route to where she’d parked her Beemer. Cade was late? She was
out
of here.

Headlights swept the east wall across from the kitchen archway, stopping her dead. “Shit.”

Too late.

She did a little dance in place to shake off the tension that had her tighter than an over-wound watch, throwing in some yoga breathing for good measure. Exhaling a final gusty breath, she nodded to herself. “Okay. Time to pull on your big girl pants.”

She forced herself to shove down her irritation over Cade’s tardiness, over the fact that he
breathed,
and bury it deep.
It’s been thirteen years, girl. He’s a footnote, someone who no longer matters. Who
hasn’t
mattered for a very long time.
So it probably wouldn’t do to snap his head off first thing.

But, oh, boy. The temptation.

She watched him through the back-door window as he climbed the steps and stopped beneath the porch
light, and her annoyance surged back with a vengeance. She fought it to a standstill once more, pushed out a final exhalation and reached out to unlock the door.

The knob turned before she could open it, and he blew into the kitchen, shaking himself like a wet dog and sending raindrops flying in all directions from his sun-streaked brown hair. Looking beyond him, Ava saw that it had begun to pour again.

“Man, it’s wet out there!” He flashed her his trademark Gallari smile, white teeth flashing and deep creases bracketing his mouth. Only she noticed that this time the blue, blue eyes glinting between dense, dark lashes held…something. Wariness maybe or…calculation? Something cooler and edgier than the smile that for years had haunted her dreams.

It just bugged the hell out of her that she felt his impact like a cattle prod to the breastbone. Why was it like this every damn time she laid eyes on him: this immediate, visceral one-two to the heart? It was identical to the reaction she’d had around teenaged Cade—and even after everything she knew about him, everything he’d
done
—seeing him gave her that same hot punch to the solar plexus.

Well, it would be a cold, cold day in hell before she felt the least bit tempted to act on it. She raised an eyebrow. “And you call yourself a Seattle native?”

“I forgot how fast the rain can soak a guy up here.”

She gave him a polite smile. “I suppose living in southern California will do that to a person.” She made a show of glancing at her watch. “Tell me why you think I should give you the time of day—let alone rent you the mansion for a documentary.”


O
-kay. No small talk.” His mouth developed an unyielding slant that somehow looked more at home on his
chapped lips than his old smile. “Sorry I’m late. There was a wreck on I-5 and it took a while to get traffic moving again.”

She nodded her acceptance of his apology and watched as he looked around the kitchen. A small pucker of dismay appeared between his dark eyebrows. “It’s been modernized.”

When Ava looked him fully in the face this time, she found it less unsettling. “Surely you didn’t expect it to be the same as it was back in the eighties?”

“I guess I’d hoped it would be.”

“As soon as Poppy, Jane and I inherited it, we had the awful sunroom addition removed and, yes, modernized the place throughout. We were expecting to sell it, Slick, not rent it—and even that’s not a done deal.” She raised her brows. “Your pitch?”

“As my production assistant told you on the phone, I want to do a documentary on the Wolcott Suite mystery. But more than that, I want to feature Agnes Wolcott.”

She had, and Ava had to admit that was the reason she was standing here. But—“Why? I mean, sure, the Wolcott diamonds gained urban legend status locally, but I doubt the story surrounding it is nationally famous.”

“Maybe not, but I grew up in this town, and I’ve been fascinated by the mystery of it since I was a kid.” His blue eyes lit with enthusiasm. “It’s got everything, Ava—a cool old mansion, a fortune in diamonds that were never recovered, a murder…and a woman at the heart of it that I find more and more remarkable the deeper I dig.”

She really liked that last part. What she didn’t like
was him. “And I should care about what you want, why?”

“Because I can do justice to a woman I know you cared for. And because I’ll give you and your friends thirty grand for six weeks’ use, pay all the peripheral expenses for the time Scorched Earth Productions is here and landscape the grounds back to the way they were in the eighties.”

Oh, low.
The mansion had turned into an albatross around her and her friends’ necks in this economy, and he undoubtedly knew it. Desperately, she wanted to spit in his eye. But she thought of her friends. Poppy and Jane had never complained, but she knew this place was a drain on them, too. So, sucking up her ire, wondering if she was making the worst decision of her life, she gritted teeth and said through them, “Fine.”

“You’ll do it?”

“Yes.” What the hell. She wouldn’t have to see him. “Have your assistant call me for my lawyer’s number—you can send him the contracts—and if he finds it agreeable you’ve got a deal. Do you want a tour before you go? Since you seemed concerned about the work we had done, I’d be happy to show you. I think you’ll agree our crew did a wonderful job of preserving the spirit of the original design in their restoration.” She stepped back.

“One more thing,” he said, halting her. “I want to hire you as the production company’s concierge, as well.”

She laughed in his face. “No. Do you want that tour or not?”

“Forget the tour—”

“Works for me. Send your paperwork to my lawyer.” She turned to go.

“Look. I’ll pay you two grand a week plus a fifty
thousand dollar bonus if the documentary comes in on time and on budget.”

“Which somehow won’t happen, right?”

“The bonus is a legitimate offer, Ava. I’ll email my own contracts for your attorney to look over while he’s going over yours, and you’ll see I have a lot more to lose than you.”

Doesn’t matter. Because it’s not going to happen.
But damn him. Damn him, damn him, damn him! Not only had her trust fund taken a huge hit in the economic downturn, so had the finances of many of the clients who formed the foundation of her concierge business. And as one of the gazillion mortgage holders who’d been caught up in the subprime lending disaster, she was facing a huge balloon payment on her condo that was coming due in the not-nearly-future-enough future.

Well, too bad, so sad for her. She’d rather lose the place than spend six weeks in this bastard’s company.

Seriously?
her hardscrabble practicality demanded. She had to admit that was pretty cut-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face idiotic. This could actually be the answer to her prayers. And hell, it wasn’t as if she were worried about falling under his spell. Been there, done that.

“You’d be in place to make sure I do credit to your Miss Wolcott,” he said softly.

She blew out a defeated breath. “All right. Contingent on my attorney’s evaluation of the contracts, I’ll do it—to see you do justice to Miss A’s story.” And if she was also doing it for the money, he didn’t have to know. “Do you want that tour? We can start with the dining room across the hall.”

She turned, only to feel Cade wrap a hand around her forearm to halt her. Heat seeped through the cashmere
of her coat sleeve beneath his light grasp, and she promptly swung back around, twisting her arm free.

“Do not,” she said with hard-fought calm, “touch me.”

Releasing her, he stepped back. “I just wanted to tell you, before we get started, how genuinely sorry I am for what happened back in high school. I was—”

“Forget it,” she interrupted. She
so
did not want to rehash the ugly details of the past with him. “I have.”

“Really?” An eloquent eyebrow rose, surprise flashing in the depths of his cobalt eyes.

She gave him a regal nod. She had cut him off at the knees the other times he’d sought her out over the years to apologize, but if acknowledging his regret would move him along to a place where they didn’t have to discuss the past, then, fine. She’d grant him his damn redemption.

“You forgive me then?”

No.
Hell,
no.
That would be a snowboarding day in hell.

But she gave him a serene smile, knowing from this point on she had to be professional. “Let’s just agree to leave the past in the past, shall we?” Not awaiting a response, she led him to the dining room and got down to business. “As you can see, great care was taken in here to preserve the integrity of the era in which the Wolcott Mansion was built—”

 

S
HE MET
J
ANE AND
P
OPPY
at Sugar Rush, her favorite neighborhood coffee shop/bakery, the next afternoon. As they took their seats at a round table by the play area, she sucked in a quick inhale, then eased it out. “I did something last night I hope you’ll be okay with,” she said to her two best friends amid the clatter of crockery
and conversations. She hesitated for a brief second, then blurted, “I agreed to rent the mansion to Cade Gallari.”

Okay, her ripping-off-the-Band-Aid delivery was clearly a little too abrupt, for Jane’s blue eyes went round with shock. Then her friend slapped both hands onto the tabletop, came half out of her seat to shove her face closer to Ava’s own and said, “You agreed to rent it to
who?

Ignoring the two women at the next table whose attention was drawn by Jane’s incredulous rising voice and aggressive stance—a look at odds with her neat, shiny brown hair and dark-hued clothing that always looked so conservative at first glance—Ava focused on her friends. She knew perfectly well she’d been heard. Nevertheless, she repeated evenly, “Cade Gallari.”

“Tell me you’re kidding.” Poppy’s voice might have been calmer than Jane’s, but as the curly haired blonde set her coffee cup down the expression in her topaz-brown eyes held identical disbelief. “Why would we let that douche anywhere
near
our inheritance?”

It was a fair question. Miss Agnes, the cool old lady who’d started having the three of them over to her mansion for monthly teas when they were twelve, who’d given them their first diaries and gotten them started on their lifelong journaling habit, had become a friend and a mentor. In Ava’s and Janie’s case, she’d been more parentlike than their own parents. And when she’d died a year and a half ago, she’d left a big hole.

Even in death, however, she’d been full of surprises, and Ava, Jane and Poppy had been astounded to learn she’d bequeathed them her estate. Miss A might well be rolling over in her grave at the thought of Cade in her home. God knows she’d played a large role in helping Ava pick up the pieces after his betrayal.

Feeling a little beleaguered, she stared at her friend. “It’s not as if I would’ve chosen to let him use the Wolcott mansion, either, Poppy, given any other option. But I’m fresh out of those. I said yes because the market for houses in our price range is stagnant and we’re paying through the nose for taxes, lights, utilities, yard maintenance and all the other crap that goes along with maintaining a place this size. He’ll pay very well for the privilege.”

She told them the terms. “And he’ll pay even more if we decide to rent him a few of Miss Agnes’s collections to use in his production—something I told him he’d have to discuss with you, Janie. You both know he produces documentaries about unsolved mysteries, right?”

The other women shifted guiltily, and she laughed, feeling tension she hadn’t even realized she’d been carrying—in her neck, her shoulders, her spine—release its grip. “Relax, I don’t doubt your loyalty—you guys have boycotted all things Gallari forever. But we’d have to live in outer Mongolia not to have heard something about the name he’s making for himself.”

“Okay—I confess—I saw one of his films.” Poppy held her hands up in a
Don’t shoot!
gesture when both Ava and Jane gaped at her. “
I
didn’t pick it out—Jason ordered the damn thing from Netflix one night. He-who-shall-not-be-named is never mentioned in our house, so Jase had no way of putting the documentary maker together with the guy he saw upsetting you in that bar in Columbia City last year. Murphy’d just told him he had to see it.”

BOOK: Playing Dirty
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