Read Certified Male Online

Authors: Kristin Hardy

Certified Male (6 page)

“No. Maybe. I don't know.” Del rose and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I just know I took the easy way out for way too long and it didn't get me anywhere I wanted to be. I want to make something happen, not just take what comes my way.”

“Sports not good enough for you?” A hard note entered Perry's voice.

“You know better. I just want to do something that didn't fall in my lap, you know?”

“Life's so tough when you're a golden boy.” The sarcasm was rich in Perry's voice.

“It's not that,” Del said simply. “I feel like I let myself down by not trying. And I let everybody else down, too.”

There was a silence and then a long sigh. “Okay, fine. You really want me to forward your application to the news desk, I'll do it. But I'm making no guarantees.”

“I'll make my own.”

 

A
T THE SOUND OF THE CLOSING
bathroom door, Gwen's eyes opened and she breathed a silent sigh of relief. He was out of the room. She might have had a momentary brain lapse the night before, but now she could get up, get dressed and get on with it. Time was a-wasting and Jerry was out on the loose with four and a half million in stamps. She didn't have time to lie around. She moved to the edge of the bed, wincing at the slight soreness between her legs.

And winced again at the thought of the night before.

From the day she'd started having sex—at a respectable
nineteen—she'd vowed no one-night stands. None of those cheap, tawdry scenes of waking up the morning after with a total stranger. And now, fueled by too many cosmos and too much Nina, she'd popped her one-night-stand cherry. It was just the sort of fiasco Joss would get involved in, coming to town for a serious purpose and getting distracted by sexy eyes and clever hands.

Gwen paused and a slow smile stretched unbidden across her face. And what clever hands they were, not to mention the rest of the machinery that went with them. She wasn't a novice when it came to having sex, but her interludes tended to be moderate, dignified. Not for her, wild monkey sex where the positions changed by the minute and the lovers clawed and gasped.

At least, not until now.

Yawning, she rose and began to sort her clothes out of the tangle on the floor. Then again, sex—however amazing—was her last priority right now. One night? Okay, she'd been restless lately. She could give herself one night. It was over, though. Today was for Jerry-hunting and she couldn't lose focus. The stamps were the only things that mattered.

Gwen slipped into her black lace underwear and hunted around for her bra. The ideal thing to do would be dress and beat a hot retreat—if only she weren't dying to use the bathroom. How would Nina play it? At ease and in control, of course. Say good morning, go in and powder her nose and be on her way with a swagger. Not self-conscious, not in a million years. Nina ran the show.

At the sound of the bathroom door opening behind her, Gwen clutched her clothing to herself in reflex action.
Relax,
she told herself, willing her arms to loosen up. Nina was totally comfortable being naked and would act that way.

“Good morning,” she said and gave him a bold look.

Del stared. “Um…”

Gwen's confident smile wavered. “What?” She touched her nose.

“Your eye, it's a little…”

She whirled to inspect herself in the mirror over the bar. Everything was fine around her nose, but the white of one eye had a brilliant turquoise circle on it. One of the damned colored contacts that Joss had insisted she wear had moved while she'd slept. “Oh, for god's sake,” Gwen muttered and went into the bathroom without a word.

It was just as well, she figured as she pulled out the contacts and dressed. Forget about awkward segues, now she'd just be ready to roll. Hand on the doorknob, she took a deep breath and walked out into the room.

Del had pulled on his jeans but hadn't bothered to fasten the top button. His waistband hung tantalizingly open below the rock-hard ripples of his belly. She remembered the way the muscles had felt under her hand, with their light dusting of springy hair.

Before she could speak, he walked over and pressed a kiss on her. “Good morning. Sorry for getting distracted before.”

It didn't matter that they'd spent the night together, it didn't matter that they'd done much, much more, the kiss had her lips buzzing. Taken off balance, she faltered. “They were probably a bad idea. Something new.”
Stupid,
she thought immediately. And certainly never should have admitted to doing anything goofy.

“If it matters, I like the real color better,” he remarked and slid the fingers of one hand along her jaw, curling them around her neck. She read his intentions in the darkening of his eyes and stepped back hastily even as she felt the first fizz of desire begin to bubble in her system.

“Well, got to get the day started,” she said briskly. “I should get rolling.”

“Why?” He moved toward her again. “You're here for pleasure. I can help you with that.”

“I've got business that can't wait.” Although if she didn't get away from him soon, it would have to.

“Business?” He lowered his hands, interest flickering in his eyes. “I thought this was a vacation for you.”

Gwen coughed. “Oh, yeah, well, you know, business and pleasure, better together.”

“Is this about Rennie?”

That stopped her for a moment. “Where'd you get that?”

“That's who you were looking for when you sat down last night, wasn't it? Rennie?” Del backed up to lean a hip against the bureau.

She flushed. “I don't think that's any of your business.”

“You're right,” he agreed, “but it's kind of an odd thing. Makes me wonder.”

The last thing she needed was a curious reporter on her hands. “There's nothing to wonder about,” Gwen snapped, checking her jeans pocket for her room key. “Last night was last night and this is today. And I've got things to get done.”

“So I see. Doesn't mean we still can't spend some time together.”

Had she thought he had devilish eyes? Now they were just way too perceptive and persistent for her own comfort. She needed to cut this off—now. “You seemed like a nice guy last night. Don't turn into one of those jerks who can't take no for an answer. It was a one-nighter. Deal with it.”

The look in his eyes hardened. “I don't have any problems with the word no. I just don't take bullshit very well.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“You tell me. You're kind of a moving target.”

“And you're kind of an asshole.” She shook her head like a dog shaking off water. “Why are we even having this conversation? I am out of here. Have a nice life.”

“Give my love to Rennie.”

She answered with a rude word. Unfortunately the pneumatic closer prevented the door from slamming, so she had to listen to his laughter all the way down the hall.

6

G
WEN STOOD ON THE SIDEWALK
near the corner of Sahara and Decatur, squinting in the late morning sunlight. Away from the Strip, Las Vegas was anonymous and pedestrian—computer stores nestled up against muffler shops, fast-food joints and video stores filling up the minimalls. It was like any city in America.

Except for the temperature.

Not even dark glasses blocked the merciless desert sun. Baking heat shimmered up in waves from the sidewalk. It was a good thing she'd worn something skimpy when she'd left the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel, not that Nina's wardrobe held anything else. Of course, Gwen would have chosen a sleeveless top and shorts rather than Nina's clingy lime tank dress. It was right for Nina, though. She'd wear an attention-getter.

And get attention it had, from the elevator, through the casino, to the front door. It had certainly brought the doorman on the run, and the cabbie had been ready to throw aside his day job to show her around. Instead she'd had him take her out to the boulevard of strip malls and drop her at LV Rarities.

A low chime sounded as she pushed open the door. Inside the shop provided a cool, dark contrast to the sun-baked outdoors. In the quiet confines of the store, it felt as if the air never moved; spotlights just shone down endlessly
and timelessly on the glimmering coins and stamps and antique jewelry in the display cases.

“Can I help you?” A man with salt-and-pepper hair combed discreetly over a thinning patch appeared from the back.

“Hello,” Gwen said coolly. He was about her height. From the way he held himself, she was pretty sure he was sucking in a paunch.

“Hot enough for you today?”

“Oh, a little warm, maybe. Nice and cold in here, though.”

“Only the temperature. Our merchandise is hot.”

Gwen raised an eyebrow. “You sell stolen goods?”

“No, no,” he said hastily. “I meant top-of-the-line.”

“I'm sure.” Never hurt to have him on the defensive if what she suspected was true, Gwen thought and walked slowly around the U of display cases, bending over occasionally for a closer look at the precious goods inside. “So, what are your specialties?”

“Whatever you're looking for, we've got.” He smoothed his hair. “What's your name?”

“Vera.” Another character was called for, she'd decided on the way over. She was trying to hunt down Jerry as Nina. The last thing she wanted was for him to find out that someone named Nina was asking questions about him. “My—” she paused “—friend has just won big at the casino and he wants me to pick out something nice.”

“We've got some gemstones or some gold wafer jewelry that would look fine on you.”

Gwen waved a dismissive hand. “I've already been jewelry shopping. I'm interested in owning something with a little more distinction. You carry rare stamps, right?”

“Oh, I could set you up with some interesting pieces for a few hundred each.”

She flicked him a glance. “I want valuable stuff. Don't you have anything really rare? What do they cost?” She wandered back and stopped in front of him.

“How much money are you looking to invest?” he countered, unable to entirely disguise the hint of eagerness in his voice.

Gwen traced a pattern on the glass of the display case. “Oh, we don't need to get specific just yet. What could I do with, say, three to five thousand?”

“Looks like someone brought luck to the table.”

“I do my best.” She didn't flirt, but she gave him a smile of vague promise. “So, what's your best?”

His eyes brightened. “I might do better showing than telling.”

In another lifetime, bub.
“Bring them out, then. If I like what I see, I might be back later this week.”

She watched his nostrils flare as he took a breath. “Give me just a minute.” He stepped in the back and came out with a plush catalog. “We have the German 1864 one-schilling or the Great Britain 1882 one-pound.” He opened the pages to show her each.

Gwen nibbled her lip, watching him watch her. “Do you have anything more colorful? You know, Pony Express stamps or something with airplanes?”

He laughed indulgently. “It'd take a little more than five thousand to get you a Pony Express stamp, but I've just picked up a nice 1847 Benjamin Franklin stamp that might suit you.”

“Yeah, I bet in a town like Vegas you pick up nice pieces all the time.”

He shrugged. “It's a business. They need money, I need stock.”

She looked at the stamp in its clear holder and felt a thrill of excitement. She recognized the perforation pattern, the
width of the border around the stamp—characteristics that were as sure identifiers as fingerprints to a person. The stamp was from her grandfather's inventory. “So, how do you know it's for real? You have a certificate or something?”

He cleared his throat. “This is a recent acquisition. I don't have paperwork for it yet, but I hope to.”

“Then how do you know it's authentic?” she asked casually, flipping the pages of the catalog to spy another stamp from the store collection. And another. “Do you know where they got it?”

“I don't ask those questions.”

I'm sure you don't,
Gwen thought. “How much?” she said aloud.

He looked at her and looked at the stamp, considering. “Oh, normally I'd ask six thousand, but since you look like you might be interested in long-term collecting, I'll take five to get you started.”

Outrage flooded through her. Five? The catalog value of the stamp was thirty-five hundred.

“Of course,” he said silkily, brushing his fingers over the back of her hand, “that price includes personal advice on the investment value of rare stamps, perhaps in a more…conducive setting. Who knows, you might even get me to drop the price even further.”

It made her skin crawl but she took care not to show it. “Well, you can start by telling me more about this stamp. I guess every one of them has a story. Tell me—” she looked at him speculatively “—did the guy who sold it to you say where he got it?”

“I make my business buying and selling, not asking.”

“How do you know it was his to sell?”

The dealer moved his hand away. “The appraisal takes care of all of that,” he said briskly, seeming to realize that he'd already said too much. “Are you interested?”

“Let me think it over.” She gave him an intimate smile, but she'd let her moment slip away, she understood. He wasn't going to tell her any more. “Can you set the stamp aside? I need to talk with my friend. I'm sure he'll want an appraisal.”

“For you, anything.” His hand drifted south of his belt. “And think about what I said. I can teach you a lot about stamps and maybe throw in a tour of the city. I've lived in Vegas for twenty years. I can show you all the sights.”

“I'll bet you can,” Gwen told him. “I'll just bet you can.”

 

B
ACK IN HER ROOM, SHE DIALED
Stewart's cell phone. “I've found him,” she said without preamble.

“Huh? What?” She could practically see him trying to catch up. “Where?”

“Vegas, of all places.”

“Vegas! How'd you find him?”

“I tracked the 1847 Benjamin Franklin. A guy from out here answered that posting I put on the loop.”

“What do you mean, out here? You didn't go carting off to Vegas to find him, did you? For god sakes, Gwennie, use some sense. Your thief could be dangerous.”

“Stewart, I've got to get those stamps back.”

“So, what, you're going to grab him and pound him until he tells you where they are? Point a gun at him and make him sweat? This isn't a movie.”

“I know,” she said, her excitement dissipating. No, it wasn't a movie, but the whole thing certainly felt unreal. “And I don't know where he is exactly, anyway. I just know he's been here. The dealer's got three of our stamps.”

“You sure he bought them from your guy?”

“They're ours, that much I know. Where he bought them, I can't be sure. He's giving me the runaround.” Gwen rose and began pacing, the cordless phone in her hand. “He
had to get it from Jerry, though. It's too soon for them to have changed hands more than once.”

“I'm surprised he'd bother messing with you.”

His confidence warmed her. “I didn't tell him who I was or why I was asking. I couldn't take the chance of it getting back to Jerry.”

“Even if you didn't tell the dealer your name, I can't imagine anyone trying to get around someone like you. You mean business and it shows.”

Outside on the Strip, a giant video screen showed a phalanx of dancers gyrating through a dance from the latest hit show. “I'm kind of in disguise.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I didn't want Jerry recognizing me before I figured out what was going on. Joss fixed me up….” She stopped helplessly as Stewart began laughing, a deep belly laugh that went on and on. “Well, it's not that funny,” she said frostily.

“Little Gwennie undercover.” Amusement was rich in his tone. “Sorry, I'm sure you look great.”

“Actually I'm a total babe,” she informed him, flopping down in one of the dark red upholstered chairs by the window. “The cab driver volunteered to take the day off and give me a personal tour of Vegas.”

“I'm sure he did,” he said more soberly.

“So did the stamp dealer, but what he didn't give me was anything on Jerry I could use.”

“Assuming it's this Jerry in the first place.”

“It's Jerry, all right. Anyway, I wonder if you know the guy here. Tom Horton of LV Rarities?”

Stewart considered. “I've met him once or twice.”

“You think you could give him a call, see what you can find out?” For now, Horton was her only link to Jerry and Jerry was her only link to the stamps.

“I'll do better. I'll come out and do it in person.”

Half of her was relieved, half of her felt like a kid whose parents were taking over. “You don't have to do that, Stewart. I've got it under control for now.”

“You're only three hours away, Gwennie. I can be there tonight.”

“You've got a business to run,” she protested.

“So what? This is Hugh's future we're talking about.”

“I want to do it myself,” she burst out, knowing as she said it that it was true. There was silence on the line. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean it to come out that way. Look,” she tried, “it was my fault the stamps got taken. I need to do this, to at least try to make it right. Can you understand that?”

“I suppose.” His tone was guarded.

“I need your advice and I need your connections. I just don't need you here right now. You're still helping me, though.”

“Not enough.”

“More than enough,” she countered. “If you can get anything out of Horton, that would be huge. I'll call if I need you out here.”

“Promise?”

“I swear. You're always first on my list, you know that.”

“Oh, I bet you say that to all the middle-aged guys you know.” The tone was a little too hearty, but he sounded mollified.

“Only you.” Relieved to have the difficult moment past, Gwen smiled. “Were you able to find out anything on the other stamps?”

“Big goose egg, which is good news for you. As near as I can tell, no one out there is putting out feelers on the Post Office Mauritius stamps or the inverted Jennys. I'm still waiting to hear on the two-penny.”

There wasn't a name for the level of relief she felt. “Maybe he's lying low.”

“Probably,” Stewart agreed. “You don't have a lot of time to waste, though. Swear you'll call me if you need help?”

“I do. I'll keep hunting and let you know what I find out.”

“Same goes. And Gwennie?”

“Yeah, Stewie?”

“Be careful.”

 

D
EL CAME OUT OF THE CASINO
office and stopped, surveying the room with the same amazement he always did. Noise, motion and color as far as the eye could see. Day or night, it was all the same, with the same nameless faces and bodies lined up at the slot machines and the craps tables in a sort of numb gambling daze, mechanically placing the next bet, the one that was going to win them big.

To one side of him lay the hotel registration counter. In an ordinary hotel it would be immediately inside the front door. In a Vegas hotel getting to the registration desk required a Sherpa guide and provisions. The hotel designers knew where the cash money part of the business came from and they put it right up front. Del remembered a reporter in town to cover a UNLV football game losing three hundred dollars at blackjack before he ever even got checked into his hotel.

A curvy blonde walked by and gave him a smile of promise. And all he could think was that she didn't hold a candle to Nina. Not the sleekly sexy Nina of the night before, but the Nina of this morning, with her hair tousled and her eyes shining their natural blue-gray. Underneath the glossy packaging was an unstudied, intriguing woman who stayed on a man's mind—at least, on his.

Get over it,
he told himself, remembering her words. The strange thing was, he didn't seem to be able to. Del
shook his head, wondering about himself. He'd been involved with plenty of women in his life and he'd been interested in plenty of others who didn't return the favor. It wasn't a problem. If a woman didn't want him, there were bound to be others who did. He wasn't hung up on challenges or afraid of rejection. He was a pragmatist.

Certainly he'd had more than his share of experience with golden girls, genus California, species beach babe. He'd even gone so far as to marry one—and discovered that underneath the polish and packaging there wasn't a whole lot else.

Maybe that was why Nina stuck with him, because the more of her package and polish he got under, the more levels to her there were—clever, funny, smart, subtle, stubborn. That and the fact that there was something going on with her that wasn't quite kosher. There was probably an easy explanation for it, but if so, why didn't she just say something? Maybe it was simple, maybe it was innocent.

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