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Authors: Susan Andersen

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BOOK: Playing Dirty
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T
ONY
P
HILLIPS
, the day security guard, looked around the upstairs hallway and, seeing the coast was clear,
headed to the sitting room of Agnes Wolcott’s bedroom suite. His nerve endings buzzing with anticipation, he could almost feel the eager rush of the blood through his veins. So what if it wasn’t the long con he was more familiar with?

According to Uncle Mike, this was something a helluva lot better: a one-way ticket to Easy Street.

Tony shrugged. He didn’t know about that, but at least he had the upstairs to himself. Which didn’t mean he was gonna go get cocky. Getting
into
the room was the easy part. It was getting back out again with the Wolcott jewels in his pocket that was uncertain. But if he could pull it off, if he could really get his hands on the old lady’s long lost diamonds, then a huge-ass ticket was exactly what the old man’s information would turn out to be. And all he’d have left to do was stay cool for a few short hours until John the night guy showed up to relieve him.

Knowing that, knowing that once he had those sparklers and could blow this pop stand, that he could just keep on trucking and never look back…well, that made him feel…it made him feel so—

Day-umn.

Like he could start planning for a life of leisure on an as-yet-to-be-determined tropical beach. So what were a couple of hours compared to that?

As soon he entered the sitting room, however, all his pretty fantasies went up in smoke. Standing as though someone had superglued his shoes to the highly polished, long-plank fir floor, unable to step forward or back, he stared in dismay at the wall to his left. “Son of a bitch.”

He should have known it was too good to be true. But he had cut his eyeteeth on the legend of Mike
Maperton’s coup back in the eighties. He had grown up hearing about how his uncle had copped the suite of Wolcott diamonds and set in motion an urban legend so fricking juicy it was still widely known to this day.

Hell, it was the goddamn basis for the documentary all those marks downstairs were busy getting underway.

As much as he’d like to bring the old man back to life just for the satisfaction of killing him again, he had to give Mike his props. The bastard had taken brilliant advantage of the whims of fortune that had dropped—bing/bam/boom—in his lap back in ’85.

First, while heading up the renovation here and in the adjoining bedroom, the man had stumbled across a secret compartment. Although he claimed he’d considered doing what unimaginative people liked to call “the right thing,” and actually report his discovery to the Wolcott broad, that very evening Agnes Wolcott had changed history forever when she’d gone and left a diamond necklace, bracelet, earrings and hair clips out on her night table instead of stashing them in her safe like she always did when she came home from an event.

Clearly she’d been
looking
to get fleeced. Mike had simply obliged her by stashing the jewels in the newfound hidey-hole.

Then—and this was the part Tony loved—the old dude had tracked her down to tell her he’d seen them when he’d gone in to take some measurements and warn her she should put them away before something happened to them. In the wake of discovering them missing, everyone’s belongings, including Mike’s, had been searched before they were allowed to leave. Yet he had been the
only
one who hadn’t been a serious suspect.

Tony couldn’t help but chortle to himself. Because, please, that was seriously funny. The Mikester being such an honest guy and all.

Too bad his uncle’s luck had run dry when he’d gone back to retrieve the jewelry he’d concealed. It should have been a cakewalk. It wasn’t as if the old guy hadn’t been überpatient—hell, he’d waited more than six months for the place to be empty. Miz Wolcott and her man of business, Henry Somebody-or-Another, were supposed to have been on a trip to Europe.

No one had ever really explained to Tony’s satisfaction
why
good old Henry hadn’t been in Europe with Agnes Wolcott. All he knew was that when his uncle had come face-to-face with the man he had believed to be safely halfway around the world, he’d panicked, shot first and asked questions later. The reflexive action might have worked in Mike’s favor—had he actually killed Henry outright. But he hadn’t, and that failure had landed him in the state pen at Walla Walla when the butler dude had managed to cling to life long enough to finger him.

To Tony’s family’s eternal dismay during the near-quarter of a century since, Uncle Mike had remained stubbornly mum about where he’d hidden the loot. Then, out of the blue, the old man had summoned Tony to his side at the penitentiary, said he didn’t have long to live and told Tony exactly where he could find the to-this-day-never-recovered Wolcott diamonds. Behind the fancy carved part of the north wall in the room attached to the old lady’s bood-wah, he’d said.

Fat lot of good
that
information did him. Tony stared in disgust at the boudoir’s sitting room. Because what Mike had neglected to add before croaking in the middle of their conversation, which had already been
interrupted a dozen times by the old guy’s lifelong four-pack-a-day-habit’s wet, hacking cough, was that the entire fucking
wall
was ornately carved. Or half of it was, anyway. It was that whatayacallit stuff—wainscoting.

Finally getting his feet to move, he crossed the room and inspected the floor-to-midwall carvings.

And heaved a sigh. He was going to be here for a while.

Well, what the hell, he was a confidence man by trade. His own usually consisted of bilking women out of their cash, but a con was a con. He sure as shit hadn’t gotten this far just to throw in the towel at the first setback. Not when the potential payoff made his previous takes look like peanuts in comparison. He was the only person alive who knew the diamonds were still here in the freaking house after all these years. That shooting the Henry guy had panicked Mike into running before he could retrieve them.

And that was just too delicious to walk away from.

So squatting in front of the farthermost bottom corner, he started palpating the ridges and swirls of the rich, carved fir. He had no idea if he was warm, hot or cold.

But a guy had to start somewhere.

CHAPTER SIX

Maybe—and I’m only saying maybe—Cade’s not all bastard, all the time.

G
ESTURING
at her black dress, Jane stormed into Miss Agnes’s bedroom where Ava and Poppy were getting their makeup and hair done. “I don’t see why I can’t just wear this.”

Looking over from the chair where she sat draped in a voluminous silver cape, Ava watched Jane stomp across the room to the closet and rattle through the dresses she’d brought from home. As she watched, the disgruntled brunette selected one and yanked it, hanger and all, from the rod, holding the sheath out to inspect.

Ava smiled, because nerves affected everyone differently. In her case, it was a jittery stomach from an iron-clad conviction she was about to come across as plump and stupid on Miss A’s documentary. “I did warn you not to bring anything black, Janie,” she reminded her friend gently.

“Which pretty much wipes out three-quarters of her wardrobe,” Poppy said dryly with a nod at Jane’s current selection.

Tossing the blonde a sullen look, Jane stuffed the sheath back on the rod.

Ava gave Poppy—who probably didn’t suffer from
nerves—a wry smile even as she said, “Sorry, I guess I should have shared the reason behind the No-Black rule. They’re gonna seat us on that old black-and-gold tapestry settee-and-chair arrangement you always liked so much, and apparently dark clothing will just make us disappear into it.”

Jane’s face got an arrested in-
that
-case look and, reading her like a book, Ava hurriedly added, “No whites or beiges, either, babe. I’m told those will wash us out.”

“Shit,” Jane muttered.

Ava gave her a baffled look. “I don’t get it. You know this kind of stuff—it’s exactly the sort of thing you take into consideration when you put together your exhibits at the Met. So why are you being such a baby about it?”

Jane mumbled something.

“Speak up, girlfriend. I didn’t catch that.”

“I’m just more comfortable in black, okay?”

“Yet you look so pretty in colors. But yeah, I totally get the comfort level thing.” Jane’s folks were flamboyant actors, and her mother’s penchant for screaming colors had long ago driven Jane to adopt the opposite end of the spectrum. It had only been since falling for Devlin—and especially since marrying him—that color had begun creeping into her wardrobe.

“Try the sage one Dev bought you,” Poppy suggested. “Or better yet, that beautiful sapphire one that matches your baby blues. Just look how well Av’s green-to-bring-out-my-eyes works for her.” Then a wry smile ticked up the corners of her lips. “Or
recall
how, I guess I should say, since Molly’s got her covered from stem to stern.”

“We don’t want powder all over her beautiful dress,”
Molly said as she worked makeup into Ava’s T-zone with small circular strokes. “But you’re right. She totally rocks green—and I’m about to make her eye color pop even more.” Setting the powder brush down, she selected an eye shadow brush and a subtle lavender shadow.

“Close ’em,” she directed, and the instant Ava lowered her lids, the makeup artist brushed color from her lash line to just above the crease of her right eye. She repeated the process on the left eyelid.

When Ava heard the soft clicking sound of Molly trading brushes, she cracked open her eyes. A new eye shadow brush shimmered with the palest of pinks, and the makeup woman swept its soft bristles along her brow bones below the arches of her eyebrows.

Poppy caught Ava’s gaze from across the space separating them as Molly traded the lavender shadow for a darker plum and grabbed yet another brush for lining and accentuating the creases of her eyes. “How about you, Av?” she inquired. “How are you doing, nerve-wise?”

“I subscribe to the Jane Kavanagh school of being on camera. I’ve got some serious stage fright going.”

“You, too?” Jane demanded, pulling the blue dress on over her head. “Bless you, that makes me feel better.” She grimaced as the fabric cleared her face. “Not that I want you to be nervous. It’s just nice to not be the only one.” She jerked a thumb at Poppy. “You know
she’s
not.”

“What’s to be nervous about?” their friend demanded. “We’re here to talk about Miss A—there is no downside to this. But I know what will help Ava relax, at least, and likely give you a smile, too. That’s good enough,” she said in an aside to the woman fussing with
her wild curls and climbed out of the chair. “There’s not a whole lot you can do with this mop.”

“There’s nothing I can do for any of you,” the woman muttered. “You and Ms. Kavanagh don’t want any changes to your styles, and Ms. Spencer has a two hundred dollar haircut that needs no help from me.”

“So you get an hour off.” Poppy shrugged. “I’d bask in it, if I were you.”

“Well, you’re not,” the stylist snapped. “I’m an artist. I don’t bask.”

“Alrighty then,” Poppy said cheerfully, glancing around the room. A moment later she turned back to the hairdresser. “You guys have any music around here?”

The stylist shrugged, but Molly said, “Beks will know,” and pulled her cell phone out of her smock pocket. She hit a few buttons, talked into the device for a moment, then disconnected and returned it to her pocket. “She’ll be up in a second.”

Poppy flashed a big smile. “Now,
you
are helpful, girl. Thank you.”

“I hear you’re looking for music,” Beks said as she breezed into the room a few minutes later, decked out in a tight black girl-T, a short, swingy skull-decorated skirt and black lace fingerless gloves. She headed to the dresser to set up a laptop. “I’ve pulled up my iTunes. I’m not sure if my taste will do it for you, but you’re more than welcome to check it out.”

Poppy joined her and bent to study the selections, then gave Beks a quick grin. “You’ve got an interesting collection for a Goth girl.”

Beks shrugged good-naturedly. “My mama raised me to embrace all music.”

“What a coincidence, so did mine. You mind if I
make a playlist? Ava’s feeling nervous about being on camera and we need some dance music to distract her.”

Ava snapped upright in her seat. “This is where I work, Poppy—I’m not gonna dance here!”

Poppy gave her a
yeah, right
look. “Yes, you will.”

“She will,” Jane agreed.

Poppy shot Beks a conspiratorial smile and gave her a friendly bump of the hip. “She won’t be able to help herself. She hears anything with a good beat, she’s gotta dance. It’s a conditioned response.”

“Kind of like Pavlov’s dogs,” Jane agreed.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Ava rolled her eyes.

Beks laughed. “I’d definitely put this one on your playlist, then. And maybe this,” she added, pointing out another, then turned to Ava when Poppy nudged her aside to pore over the music for herself. “Why on earth would you be nervous?” she demanded. “I’ve said it before, girl, and I’ll say it again, you were
built
for the camera. You are so gonna shine.”

“That’s really sweet of you to say, but being the focus of a movie is outside my comfort level.”

“Oh, this one!” Poppy said. “Beks, you
are
an eclectic chick. I’ll save it for—let’s see. Yeah, after this.”

Beks leaned over her shoulder to look. Raised a brow. “Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Trust me. This is her version of crack cocaine—she won’t be able to resist.”

Molly completed Ava’s eye makeup with two coats of reddish-brown mascara, then applied an apricot blush to the apples of her cheeks, brushed a dusting of gold atop it and turned away to paw through a selection of lipsticks, stains and glosses. As Eve and Gwen Stefani’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” purled out from the
computer’s speakers, she held out two colors. “What do you think? Nude Beach? Or Summer Rose? You’ve got those yummy full lips, so you can pull off neutral or dramatic.”

“Let’s go with the neutral.”

“Nude Beach it is. We’ll add a touch of drama with a tiny dot of gold gloss in the center of your lips.”

By the time Molly whipped the cape away, Ava was beginning to sway in time to the music. The makeup woman traded wry smiles with Poppy but merely said, “Who’s next?”

“Me,” Jane said, coming over. “Av, you look amazing. I think Beks is right, you’re going to totally shine on camera.” Climbing onto the bar stool Ava had vacated, she smiled at Molly. “If you’re even half the genius with me, it might cut my anxiety in half, too. So work your magic.”

“Oh, please!” The hairstylist surged to her feet. “If the kumbaya, everyone’s-just-wonderful-wonderful saccharine levels in here rise any higher I’m gonna go into a diabetic coma.” She blew out a disgusted breath. “I’m going out for a smoke.”

Ava watched her stride from the room, then turned to Molly. “Is she always this cheerful?”

The makeup woman made a face. “She was okay with Mr. Tarrof yesterday but a little rude to Mrs. Sandor when the old lady indicated she was uncomfortable with the way she was styling her hair.”

“She the artist she claims to be?”

“She’s good,” Molly promptly agreed, then shrugged. “But I know several stylists who are just as good if not better,
and
they’ve got better people skills. There’s one in particular who’s brilliant. She has a knack for
listening to what people want instead of pushing her own agenda on them, so everyone winds up pleased by the time she’s finished.”

Ava turned to look at Beks and raised a brow. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah. Cade’s whole deal is for the people who make this documentary possible to leave here with a positive experience.” She turned to Molly. “I imagine the brilliant listener is probably booked solid, huh?”

“Actually, she’s on maternity leave—and bored. You want me to call her?”

“Yes.”

“I should warn you, she’s seriously preggers. But she’s not due for like another six weeks, so I doubt she’s gonna go into labor in the middle of a session or anything.”

Beks grinned. “If you don’t mind giving me her number and lending your name as a reference, I’ll call her myself. It’s easier to lay out the terms of our offer without having to go through a middleman.”

“Not a problem.” Molly pulled out her cell phone again. As she relayed the number, the music changed to an Al Green song.

Several bars into the tune, Beks suddenly snapped around to look at Ava.

“Omigawd.” She laughed out loud. “Do your friends know you or what? Poppy said this would be your crack cocaine.”

A half smile curving her lips, Ava shrugged as she swiveled her hips and moved her arms, her shoulders, to the insistent beat. As long as she could remember, she’d heard certain songs and just
had
to move to their siren rhythms.

“What can I tell ya?” Arms overhead, she bumped
her hips left, right, left, her head turning side to side in sync. “Who can hear ‘Love and Happiness’ and
not
dance?”

 

C
ADE STEPPED BACK
from seating Ava and her friends on the little grouping of antique furniture he’d had Collin arrange in front of the fireplace in the formal living room and making them comfortable. Ava and Jane were obviously struggling with some apprehension over being on camera, but even anxious, the three women shared a connection that made their interactions electric to the casual observer. They had for as long as he’d known them, and it clearly hadn’t lessened any.

He wondered for an instant what it would feel like to have that sort of bond with someone. The
famiglia
Gallari hadn’t exactly been warm and fuzzy—for a damn good reason, he’d discovered toward the end of his senior year in high school.

He shook the unbidden memory—and the depressing feelings it dredged up—aside.
Was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Obi-Wan,
he reminded himself dryly and focused on the issue at hand. Given the infectious enthusiasm Ava had already demonstrated for Agnes Wolcott, he didn’t doubt for a minute that both she and her brunette friend would shake off their nerves once they got started sharing reminiscences.

Then there was the visual impact, which he could see on the large monitor the grip had set up near him was going to be huge. After Louie, his director of photography, got them well and flatteringly lit, Cade asked to see his wide shot, medium, close and extreme close-ups of all three women. Finally he turned to grin at his DP. “If they’re coming across even half as good as I think they are, this is gonna be great.”

“Dude.” Looking through the viewfinder at the three women, Louie thrust out one of his beefy hands to give him a thumbs-up. “More like
twice
as. They’re gonna be off the charts.”

Cade watched as the boom operator fitted them with the lavalier mics and had the women clip on additional radio mics whose wires he helped them thread through their clothing. Each woman’s voice would then go directly to the camera on separate channels for his soundman to mix.

“Whoa, mama!”

Cade stared at Ava, who’d started shifting in her seat. She suddenly reached into the scooped neckline of her emerald-green, black-belted dress, her hand disappearing up to the wrist into her generous cleavage before reemerging with the radio mic.

“The little bugger came unclipped and was making a break for it,” she said, holding up the large-vitamin-capsule-size microphone and laughing that contagious belly laugh of hers.

His boom operator laughed along with her. “Here, let me give you a hand with that,” he offered, making Cade take a hot step forward in instinctive protest.

Then he caught himself.
Jesus, Gallari, get a grip,
his sensible, grown-up, professional self commanded.
Guy’s just doing his job.

He stayed put and found his faith in Justin’s professionalism immediately borne out when the boom operator directed Ava to clip the microphone to her bra strap near the upper part of the dress’s neckline, then hold it in place while he checked that the wire, which had been threaded down her dress and out through her hemline, had enough slack for her to move around a bit without pulling it loose again.

Eventually everyone was in position, good to go, and he walked over to join the women. “Okay, ladies.” Focusing primarily on Poppy and Jane, who had been civil, if cool, since he’d entered their orbit, he said, “Ava probably told you how blown away I was when she talked to me about Agnes last November. Her enthusiasm made your friend come alive for me, and I’m pumped to hear your stories of her, as well. So we’re gonna get started in just a minute.

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