Authors: Jennifer Seasons
Because when I met you I found home.
ESPERATION WAS A
funny thing. Everybody thought they knew themselves until it crept into their subconscious like a stealth ninja. Perfectly logical, intelligent people scoffed at the idea that a single emotion could override all rational thought. To them, irrational behavior was for the weak-minded.
But raw desperation didn’t discriminate.
It changed a person.
Made them do things that in their normal, everyday lives they’d be appalled to even consider.
Raking a shaky hand through her long dark hair, Lorelei Littleton gave herself a mental kick to get on with it. Procrastination wasted precious minutes she couldn’t afford to lose.
A well of emotion rose in her throat at the thought and she felt the inappropriate urge to giggle. She did that when she was freaked out. If she gave in to the urge she’d probably just end up crying and that wouldn’t solve anything, either. Action was the only solution.
As she took a deep breath, her green eyes shifted over the crowd in the dimly lit blues bar. Nobody noticed her sitting at the back table by herself.
Not that she was dressed to command attention. That wasn’t her style. She was more of a casual girl. Other women in the bar were sleek in designer clothes with professionally highlighted hair done just so in typical man-bait fashion. Lorelei, on the other hand, slumped in her seat sans makeup, with old jeans and a faded yellow T-shirt from REI that read “I Dig Everything.” Since she was a writer for a gardening magazine, it had tickled her funny bone.
She wasn’t dressed to get a man, even though she was there
a man. She’d spent the past hour in her little dark corner watching and observing him. But he wasn’t just anyone.
one. The antidote to her break from sanity.
The display on her cell phone began flashing, signaling she’d received a new text message. Picking it up off the table, Lorelei flipped it open. The text was from Dina Andrews, the woman who’d started her down this road of shady behavior. Well, no, that wasn’t exactly true. She’d started down that road all by herself, and tripped over Dina in the process. No use blaming somebody else for her long slide down from the moral high ground. She’d made that choice and could at least be big enough to admit it. Squaring her shoulders, Lorelei ignored the trail of unease skittering down her spine and quickly scanned the message.
To anyone else it would have looked like nothing but a bunch of numbers, but she knew better. It was the security code to a posh condo in downtown Denver that belonged to the man she had been watching—Dina’s ex-husband, major league baseball’s hottest catcher, Mark “The Wall” Cutter.
Snapping the phone shut, Lorelei glanced up and across the room toward the Denver Rush player. It didn’t surprise her in the least to see a big-breasted blond flirting and batting her eyelashes at the infamous ballplayer. Women had been trying since she’d arrived at seven to score a seat at his table. And why not? He was known not to discriminate. Even she, who rarely paid attention to the media, had heard of his playboy ways.
She was surprised that none of them had succeeded in landing a spot, however. It had been her impression that he was pretty notorious with the ladies. But if that was the case, she wasn’t seeing it tonight. Not that it mattered, or changed the plan either way.
The fact was he had something she needed. And she was going to get it.
Unexpected amusement filled her as the blond stalked off in a huff, her attempts to charm the catcher unproductive. It seemed that no sooner had the blond left than a brunette slithered her way over to him. Lorelei shook her head and adjusted in her seat, bumping her knee on the underside of the table as she crossed her legs.
Watching Mark Cutter get hit on was almost more entertaining than going to the movies.
Not that she could really blame the women. His team profile picture didn’t do him justice at all. The man was gorgeous. Dark blond hair, tan, tall, and powerfully built. He had delicious dimples in his lean cheeks when he smiled.
Boy, was that grin of his potent. Lorelei could feel the power of it in the pit of her stomach every time it flashed. Thank goodness he didn’t seem to be much in the smiling mood tonight. She didn’t need to be sidetracked and lose focus. Dina had concocted a plan that was simple and straightforward, but she didn’t want to risk screwing it up by being stupid.
The house band kicked into a new set just as the brunette stomped away in a pout, making Lorelei chuckle under her breath. Sultry blues filled the bar, all guitar and moody sax. Her gaze shifted from the catcher to the two other men sitting at the table with him. Both she recognized from the Denver Rush Web site. Even if she hadn’t seen their pictures there was no mistaking them for anything but baseball players. They had that rough-and-cocky quality about them.
All three of them had been drinking steadily since they’d arrived. Fabulous. It was going to make her job that much easier. Mark Cutter wouldn’t even know he’d been robbed until it was too late.
Shame echoed in the recesses of her mind at the word “robbed,” but she shoved it away.
Tapping a foot with nervous energy, Lorelei thought back to the night she’d met Dina Andrews. She’d painted the picture of a womanizing, alcohol-chugging, drug-abusing jerk. But her conscience had nagged at her to rate the guy for herself and not go on faith alone. Which explained why she was currently running surveillance and being all inconspicuous in her little corner.
Dina’s description wasn’t quite jiving with what she’d been observing the past hour, but it’d been enough at the time to get her to agree to the deal. Now it was too late to back out and she was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
She and her brother had tried everything under the sun to get the money to pay for the surgery that would save her niece’s life. Nothing had worked and now their backs were to the wall. Everybody understood the state of national health care these days, and its shortcomings. Her brother made too much money for government assistance, but couldn’t afford health insurance on his own, being self-employed. Plus, with her niece’s congenital condition, no private insurance would touch them.
They were stuck. Michelle had been given six months to live if the hole in her heart wasn’t repaired soon.
That’s where the desperation came into play. Every legitimate avenue had been exhausted in search of money, and as the clock ticked down and panic ratcheted up, that line between right and wrong had become increasingly easy to cross.
The way Lorelei saw it she had two options.
Option A: Watch a two-year-old die while secure in the knowledge that her own moral purity had been maintained.
Or Option B: Break into the home of a man at the request of his bitter ex-wife to steal his good luck charm for a whole lot of money.
Sign her up for a trip to purgatory and stamp her passport. It wasn’t even a competition.
People might disagree, but it wasn’t their precious family member on the line. Let them judge. She was past caring.
What she did care about was the money, its implications, and the bailout in place if she got caught. Dina had put some serious thought into this plan. If there was any trouble at all, Lorelei was covered.
They’d planned out all the scenarios and set up escape routes. The operation was foolproof. All she had to do was slip into the catcher’s condo, swipe the gold chain he kept in his nightstand drawer when he wasn’t playing, and slide right back out.
Thirty seconds max. Easy as pie. If she did get caught, Dina said her name was still on the lease. Lorelei would simply say that she was there at the request of her friend to pick up a few items, and that if they’d like to call Ms. Andrews she could corroborate her story in full. Then Lorelei would meet up with her and she’d exchange the charm for a hundred grand.
Over and done. What Dina planned to do with the necklace after that, Lorelei didn’t know and didn’t care.
She’d hightail it back to Loveland and Michelle would have her surgery. Life would get back to normal—whatever that was. It’d been so long since she’d known anything close to normalcy that Lorelei sometimes wondered if she’d even be able to recognize it. For two years her life had been put on hold while she helped her brother. Not that she was complaining. Family was family, and with it came certain obligations.
She hadn’t minded giving up her apartment and moving back to the ranch. That old farmhouse was the perfect place for a writer to gain inspiration. It was also the perfect place for her niece to grow up.
That thought brought her right back around to the present. Lorelei signaled a waitress as she hurried past. “Excuse me. I’d like to order a drink.”
The redhead gave her a slightly harried smile. “Sure thing. What can I get for ya?”
Usually she’d go for an ale—good ol’ Guinness. Hard liquor wasn’t on her regular drink menu. But, with what she was about to do, tonight definitely called for a shot or two of liquid courage. “I’ll take two Forest Fires. And if you can tell me what that man across the room in the dark gray sweater is drinking, I’d appreciate it.”
The waitress didn’t even have to look. “Oh, you must mean Mark Cutter, the Rush’s catcher.”
Lorelei nodded and watched Mark toss back the rest of his glass out of the corner of her eye. “That’s the one.” Too bad it appeared he was drinking pints instead of shots. She’d have preferred him to be downing Crown or something. It would make her feel even more secure about tonight going off without a hitch.
Then again, if she wanted him drinking whiskey, all she had to do was send it to him. Before the waitress left, Lorelei added, “Actually, I’d like to send him a double of your finest Scotch.” She wanted to ensure he got sloshed.
“No problem. I’ll be right back with your Forest Fires.”
Turning her attention once again to the ballplayer, Lorelei jolted when her gaze landed on him, and anxiety slithered up her back. Had he just been staring at her? It sure as heck felt like it, even though he wasn’t looking now. She was almost positive he’d just been watching her.
That wasn’t part of the plan. She was supposed to be invisible. She’d chosen the darkest corner in the already dim bar for her concealment. The guy had so many cleat chasers flaunting and traipsing around in front of him that they practically made a moving screen, shielding her from view. Besides, dark hair, dim corner, boring clothing. She’d been positive she could see him, but that he wouldn’t notice her. Surely she wasn’t wrong?
Lorelei was there only to get a measure of the man who had reportedly caused such pain and suffering to his ex-wife. Something about the way Dina had described him that fortuitous night had picked at her. Something didn’t square. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Dina, precisely. It was just that she trusted her own eyes and judgment more.
Well that, and because there was a tiny cynical part of her that had been worried the plan seemed a little too pat and cozy, for all she tried to convince herself otherwise. She wanted to make sure that things would go smoothly and that he would be drunk and possibly high out of his mind on prescription narcotics as Dina had said he would be by the time he got home.
Insurance was what she’d been after, but now instinct told her that looking for it had been a bad idea. Typical.
The waitress arrived with her shots and set them neatly in front of her on the small black lacquered table. Over the wail of saxophone Lorelei heard the woman ask if she wanted to start a tab. She shook her head and declined the offer. After these drinks she’d need to be leaving if everything was going to go as planned. Reaching inside the front pocket of her worn jeans, she retrieved a twenty from its recesses and handed it to the redhead. “Keep the change.”
The young woman smirked and pocketed the cash. Then she melted into the crowd and began making her way with the last drink to the Rush player.
Butterflies started fluttering in her stomach unexpectedly, so Lorelei reached for a drink and watched the Tabasco bleed red as it mixed with the Everclear. Now she wasn’t so certain sending him a drink was the wisest move. Especially since she’d just realized that she’d forgotten to mention to the waitress to keep her anonymous when she delivered the drink.
Lifting the glass to her lips, Lorelei took a deep breath and tossed back the shot. Fire burned a wicked path down her throat as she slapped the glass back down on the table. Her lips tingled from the Tabasco and felt two sizes too big. Blowing out a rush of air, she blinked back tears and focused her gaze across the room just as her waitress reached the blond catcher.
Still feeling the heat, Lorelei braced herself for the second dose as she watched the waitress serve Mark. He was shaking his head at her and frowning, like he hadn’t ordered the drink, when she smiled and pointed in Lorelei’s direction.
His head whipped around and his focus snapped to her instantly, his gaze penetrating even from the distance across the room. She could feel it clear down to her toes, and suddenly blood pounded hard in her ears. No way had she expected such intensity. It made her feel like throwing her hands in the air and shrieking,
The jig is up!
She needed that other shot.
He was still staring at her like she was a bug under a microscope, so Lorelei grabbed up that second shot with a shaky hand. Being zoned in on like that was damn disconcerting. Understanding of what made him such a famously fierce baseball player instantly dawned. Nobody in their right mind would want to be opposite that gaze on the field. It was lethal.
Good thing she wasn’t in her right mind.
What was she going to do now? Should she act nonchalant? Should she acknowledge him? Obviously, playing the Invisible Woman wasn’t going to work anymore. She forced a smile and met his unblinking stare with her own. Then she raised her glass in a silent toast.
She saw his eyebrow shoot up in surprise at the salute and watched him reach for his drink. But then his brows pulled down into a frown. Lorelei felt her stomach sink as he pushed the drink away from him—very slowly, very deliberately. His eyes never left hers.