Read Certified Male Online

Authors: Kristin Hardy

Certified Male

“I think you're bluffing.”

Gwen frowned. Trust Del to read not only her face but her body language, whichever part of her was telling the truth. Her leg, she realized. It was bobbing and he could see it out of the corner of his eye.

“Big talk,” she said aloud, consciously trying to relax.

Tonight Del wore black jeans and a white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Little things impinged on her consciousness: the clean scent of him, the way his jaw was just a bit dark with a day's growth of beard.

She remembered how he'd looked with nothing on.

“It looks like you're pretty good,” he observed, nodding at her pile of poker chips and tossing down the table's ten-dollar minimum. “I didn't expect to see you here tonight.”

Gwen immediately raised him twenty. “I figured I needed to get warmed up for the tournament,” she explained.

“And here I thought you were pretty hot already….”

Dear Reader,

I'm a firm believer that you've got to try new things in order to stay fresh, both as a person and (for me) as a writer. Gwen's book marks my first dip into romantic mystery/suspense. I've watched other people do it for a long time and was itching to try my hand at the genre. I'm an avid mystery reader, so building a suspenseful story of my own was a fun challenge—layering in the mystery and suspense while keeping the focus on the emotional development and the trademark Blaze heat took some doing, but in the end I think it worked.

I hope you'll write me at [email protected] and tell me how I did, and whether you'd like to see more books of this type from me in future. Look for the story of Gwen's sister Joss coming in August. And don't worry, we haven't forgotten about SEX & THE SUPPER CLUB—look for the stories of Paige, Thea and Delaney to come. To keep track, sign up for my newsletter at www.kristinhardy.com for contests, recipes and updates on my recent and upcoming releases.

Have fun,

Kristin Hardy

Books by Kristin Hardy

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

44—MY SEXIEST MISTAKE

78—SCORING
*

86—AS BAD AS CAN BE
*

94—SLIPPERY WHEN WET
*

148—TURN ME ON
**

156—CUTTING LOOSE
**

164—NOTHING BUT THE BEST
**

K
RISTIN
H
ARDY
CERTIFIED MALE

This book would not have been possible without the generous help of Tyra Bell-Bloom of the Venetian Resort, David Brandon of Brandon Galleries, Gini Horn of the American Philatelic Society, Chris Johns of the Las Vegas Police Department, Bill Welch, retired editor of the
American Philatelist
magazine, and, of course, Stephen, the Hardy part of Kristin Hardy. All errors are mine.

Prologue

G
WEN
C
HASTAIN CHEWED HER LIP
and studied her cards. “D'you have any jacks?” she asked, one leg curled up under her on the kitchen chair.

The man across the table from her scratched at his salt-and-pepper hair and frowned. “Well, now, I can't say for sure, here. Is that the one wearing a crown?”

“No, the one wearing a crown is a king.”

“Ah.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Is it the lady?”

She giggled and swung her free foot back and forth at the knee. “You know a jack's not a lady, Grampa. No fair trying to fool me.”

“Well, then, I'd better just say go fish.”

Gwen reached for the cards just as the kitchen door opened and her mother swept in wearing a swirl of bright color, her hair covered with a red-and-orange patterned turban. “Gwennie, why aren't you ready? We have to leave for the library now.”

Gwen swung her foot harder. “Can I stay here with Grampa instead?” She didn't want to go stand in front of a room full of kids and tell what it was like to live in Africa. She knew she ought to feel lucky to be able to do it, her mother told her all the time. She didn't feel lucky, though. She just felt weird. They always looked at her like a zoo exhibit.

Her big sister Joss bounded into the room. Joss was
nine, a whole year older than Gwen, and never felt weird about anything. Joss loved being the center of attention. She could make even Gwen think living in Africa was a cool thing. But then Gwen would remember that Africa was more than zebras and elephants.

Africa was heat and flies. Africa was longing for the cool blue San Francisco Bay that glittered now outside the window. Africa was driving into a dusty village with her physician parents to be surrounded and stared at, unfamiliar hands plucking at her sun-bleached hair, touching her white skin.

Africa was always being different.

“Let the girl stay with me, Glynnis,” her grandfather said. “You're going back too soon as it is. We'll play cards until Mark gets home and then we'll all come meet you at the library.”

“Well…”

Gwen knew she ought to change and go with her mother and Joss, but she didn't want to. Sometimes when she and Grampa were alone they'd play poker and drink cola from frosty mugs and he'd let her win all his pocket change. She crossed her fingers.

“Come on, Mom,” Joss said, bouncing impatiently.

“All right, she can stay.” Glynnis ran a fond hand over Gwen's hair and Gwen felt a surge of warmth swamped by guilt. Then she turned to give her mother a kiss and wished, as she always did, that she could put the bad feelings away. She knew what her parents did in Africa was important. She just wished, oh, she wished as the door closed behind Joss and her mother, that it could be someone else's parents doing it.

The tablecloth was a cheerful blue patterned in dancing teapots. Gwen rubbed one of the spouts. In Mozambique they didn't have kitchen chairs, just stools, and the oiled
wood of their low, round table was only covered with a brightly dyed tablecloth on special occasions. Some of the Physicians Without Frontiers workers lived in a special compound, but Gwen's parents liked living out among the people they were there to help. It was a priceless education that they were getting, her mother insisted. It would make them like nobody else.

But Gwen didn't want to be like nobody else. All Gwen had ever wanted was to be ordinary.

1

“Y
OU HAD SEX
WHERE
?
” G
WEN
C
HASTAIN
stared at her sister, Joss, who leaned nonchalantly against the counter of the stamp shop's kitchenette.

Joss adjusted the strap of her splashy red sundress. It was too provocative for the business of selling rarities, but Gwen knew better than to tell her. “In the elevator of the Hyatt Regency. Loosen up a little bit, Gwen, it's not like we got caught.”

“Normal people don't have sex in glass elevators.”

Joss rolled her eyes. “If you'd ever stop dating boring men, maybe you'd find out. You need to date a guy who's not afraid to mess you up a little. You need to have sex on elevators, let your hair down a little while you're still able. You act like you're sixty already.”

“And you act like you're sixteen. It's a good thing Mom and Dad are in Africa,” Gwen muttered, pouring herself a mug of coffee, careful not to splash any on her tidy taupe suit. A faint hint of makeup accentuated her blue eyes, framed by stylishly discreet glasses that made her look older than her twenty-four years.

Joss snorted. “Are you kidding? Honey bunch, your mother's done wilder things than that.”

“Way more information than I needed to know,” Gwen told her, doctoring her coffee with soy milk.

“Haven't you ever talked with her about when she was young?”

Gwen gave her a queasy look. “This is not a conversation I want to have. I haven't even had breakfast yet.”

“Shoot, when Mom and Dad were dating, they—”

Gwen stuck her fingers in her ears. “La-la-la, I can't hear you,” she sang out.

“Oh, c'mon, you can't say you've never been curious.”

“Not about the sleeping together parts, no. I suppose you asked her all about them.”

“Of course.” Joss grinned at her and turned to open the little refrigerator. “So how can we be sisters when you get so freaked out about everything that Mom and I do?” she asked as she fished out a can of Coke.

“Are you kidding? Sometimes I wonder if I'm even from the same family.” How else could a person who prized normalcy as much as Gwen explain her free-spirit mother happily taking her doctor husband, her young daughters and her six years of medical training into a life in the African bush? Gwen looked at Joss, vivid and curvy, her dark hair tumbling down her back in a gypsy mane, so unlike Gwen's quiet not-quite-brown, not-quite-blond French twist. Joss had turned positively wild after Gwen had moved back to the States at fourteen. Joss had stayed in Africa while Gwen had settled into her grandparents' San Francisco home and a college prep course with a sigh of relief.

And wished her mother's wild streak good riddance. Gwen was all about discreet, down to her understated loveliness that was only apparent to those who looked. Her straight nose tipped just a bit at the end. Her chin was just strong enough to hint at a stubborn streak. Only her mouth spoiled the picture, a little too generous, a little too promising. Dusky pink lipstick accented it only faintly. Anything
more, she knew, would only attract attention. It was hardly what she wanted during work hours.

“You just got the Chastain conservative gene,” Joss said, cracking open her Coke. “It skips a generation. God knows Daddy didn't get it.”

“And you have no idea how that pains Grampa.” Gwen turned to leave the kitchen, passing through the door to the main showroom.

“Not nearly as much as it pains him that Daddy married a woman who was raised in a commune.” Joss grinned, trailing after her.

“I'm serious, Joss,” Gwen protested.

“I know, I know, he wants to leave him the stamp empire.” She snorted. “Giving up sunrise on the veld for little squares of colored paper.”

“Some of those squares of colored paper are worth half that veld.” Gwen punched in the multipart code that deactivated the sophisticated alarm system on the front door; as always, she left the back door armed unless they were using it.

“Okay, so Grampa plays in the big leagues. Dad would still be miserable doing it. Grampa should leave it to you. He's practically handed it over to you already as it is.”

“He's not leaving it to anyone.” Gwen set her coffee on the top of a crimson-lined display case containing stamp tongs and mounts. “He'll take it apart as soon as he and Grandma get back from their trip. It just takes time.” She pulled out her keys and walked to the front door, stooping to undo the floor lock. “He's had some of these clients for decades. You don't break that up overnight.” Opening the door, she stepped outside to unlock the sliding steel gates that protected the little storefront. Beyond her, traffic whizzed back and forth on Clement Street in San Francisco's Richmond district.

“Sure you do.” Joss took one side of the gates, pushing it back to the wall. “Tell 'em you're going out of business and to find a new advisor. I'm sure Grampa could recommend a bunch of people.”

“That's not the point. Some of these guys might just want to get out of investment stamps period if Grampa's retiring. They trust him. He's got a couple of accounts he's liquidating already.” Gwen finished tucking her side of the gate back into its hidey-hole and turned to the shop door. Glancing at her slim gold watch, she frowned. “I see Jerry's late again. Nice that he's dependable.”

“Oh, lay off Jerry. He's okay,” Joss countered, following her back inside.

“Jerry's hot for you. Of course you think he's okay.”

Joss rolled her eyes. “Please. Don't tell me you're jealous.”

“Of Jerry? Hardly.” The truth was, Jerry gave Gwen a faint case of the creeps for no good reason she could name. On the surface he seemed fine, and if he was maybe a little too slick, a little too accommodating, that was her own problem. His references had checked out over the phone. Coins, granted, not stamps, but at least he had experience with fine collectibles. She had a few too many degrees of separation from the dealer in Reno to get a personal verification, but there had been nothing to confirm the small stirring of uneasiness she felt about Jerry. And the truth was, if he hadn't been on board and trained, Gwen couldn't have gone to the estate sale in Chicago two days earlier.

She didn't know where the restlessness had come from. Maybe from watching her grandparents leave for a three-month tour of the South Pacific. Maybe it was just the time of year. She'd had an undeniable urge to get out, stretch her wings. Vying with some of the top dealers in the world to come away with best properties did nicely. “Jerry's just not my type.”

“Well, you don't have to love everyone who works for you,” Joss threw back.

The original plan had been for Gwen to hire someone to help run the store during her grandparents' long-planned trip. Then Joss had shown up broke and in need of a job. Gwen ought to have been impressed that it had taken almost two weeks before Joss was so bored she'd suggested hiring another clerk. Too bad Gwen had let herself be talked into Jerry.

“I've got no reason to think Jerry isn't fine. I'm just a little uncomfortable around him,” she said irritably, punching her code into the cash register to start it booting.

“He's noticed. I think it hurts his feelings the way you hang out in the back room and never talk with him.”

“You talk with him just fine. That was the deal, remember? You work the store, I work the investment accounts.” And avoid Jerry.

“The front of the store's important, too,” Joss reminded her. “We made some money while you were gone. Jerry's good at selling.”

“I don't doubt it.” Gwen picked up her coffee mug. “Call me if you get a sudden run and need help. I've got to log in the new acquisitions and get them into the safe.”

 

G
WEN STUDIED THE TEAL-BLUE
stamp through the magnifying glass. Across it a stylized steam train chugged—left to right instead of the right to left as it was supposed to. She checked the perforations and used tongs to turn the stamp so she could study the back. Inspect, confirm, log. This was the part of an acquisition she relished—poking through to get a firsthand look at all the new treasures, finding the hidden surprises.

And in this collection there had been more than a few.

She rolled her shoulders to loosen the muscles, then ad
justed the headset she wore to keep her hands free during phone calls. For a minute she allowed herself to just sit in the blessed quiet of the back office. She'd always loved the store, from the time she'd begun helping out her grandfather at fourteen. After college it just hadn't seemed right to move on—working the business had engaged her mind fully, and her econ and accounting degrees had made her more valuable to her grandfather than ever.

The place didn't feel the same without him, even though he was only on an extended vacation. “Practice retirement,” Hugh Chastain had laughingly labeled his wife's cherished four-month trip to New Zealand, Australia and Polynesia. So what if the process of shutting down the business hadn't proceeded on schedule? There would be time to close things down properly when they returned.

Gwen tried not to mourn it.

Even though she had a nagging sense that she ought to be out fighting her way up the corporate ladder, she didn't regret a minute of the three years she'd spent since graduation learning the investment ropes, polishing her expertise. Stamps fascinated her—the colors, the sometimes crude art, the shocking jumps in value of some of the rarities. The clients who chose investment philately over, or in addition to, the more traditional stock market were driven by a certain streak of romanticism, she suspected. There was no beauty or history to an online stock account. You couldn't pick up a mutual fund with tongs.

Not that they kept any of the investment accounts in the store, of course. A safe-deposit box was the place for holdings whose values could reach into the hundreds of thousands or even millions.

Or it ought to be, she thought, glancing at the wall safe with her usual twinge of discomfort.

She put her grandfather's stubbornness out of her mind
and resumed the process of inspecting and logging the new collection. The auction catalog had focused on the plums, the Columbian Exposition issues and the 1915 Pan Pacifics. She'd never expected to find a mint block of four early Cayman Islands stamps, and the profit from their sale would more than pay for the trip. She already had plans for the Argentinian and Brazilian issues.

Thoughtfully she set down her stamp tongs and reached for the Scott catalog just as the phone rang. She punched a button and a man's voice greeted her.

“Gwen, how've you been? It's Ray Halliday.”

“Hi, Ray.” It was amazing how quickly word got around about who was and wasn't at an auction, she reflected. Suddenly people you hardly knew became your best friend.

“Did you go to the Cavanaugh sale?”

He knew the answer to that already or he wouldn't be on the phone to her. “It seemed worth the trip.”

“How'd you make out?”

He undoubtedly knew the answer to that, too. “I'm looking it over right now.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Maybe.” She turned back a page or two and lifted a quartet of stamps from their mount to inspect them. “Don't you have a client who specializes in Caribbean issues?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I've got a nice little block of four early Cayman Islands. Very fine, by the looks of it.”

“I didn't see that listed in the catalog.”

Gwen grinned. “Pays to actually get out and do some legwork, Ray.”

“I suppose this is going to cost me,” he grumbled.

“I've got to get something for my time and travel,” she said reasonably. “The question is, what's it worth to you?”

The dickering over price didn't take as long as she'd ex
pected. After eleven years in the business, they'd finally realized she was no pushover. Her grandfather had taught her well.

“Anything else I might care about?”

“Just some South American issues that already have a home.”

“Stewart Oakes, no doubt,” he said sourly.

“Now, Ray, what kind of businesswoman would I be if I told you all my secrets?”

“A wealthier one. I'll pay you more than he will.”

“If I need the money, you'll be the first to know.”

She was still chuckling as she depressed the button on the phone. Might as well call Stewart while she was thinking of it. She hit a speed-dial number.

“Stewart Oakes.”

“You missed out at the Cavanaugh sale.”

“Gwennie.” The pleasure was warm in his voice. Only her family were allowed to call her by that nickname—her family and the man who'd helped her understand life in the U.S. back in the early days when she'd first arrived from Africa. Stewart Oakes had been her grandfather's employee and protégé, but at thirty-five, he'd also been young enough and hip enough to introduce a shy fourteen-year-old to grunge music, Thai food and a culture she'd been separated from since she'd been a toddler.

“Got some goodies for you, Stewie.”

“Always nice to know you're thinking of me.”

“Well, you're going to love these.”

“I bet.”

“Careful, now, I thought you were giving that up.”

“Hey, I moved to L.A. and left behind my home poker game, didn't I?”

“And we miss you every week.”

“Nice to know I'm appreciated.”

“And we miss the money we used to win from you.”

“Cheap shot, Chastain.”

She laughed and reached for another catalog even as the intercom buzzed. “Hold on a second, Stewart.” She pushed the button for the intercom. “What do you need, Joss?”

“I've got too many people out here. Can you come out?”

“Where's Jerry?”

“He still hasn't shown up.”

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