His fingers wrapped around her arm before she took a step. “What do you mean you weren’t married?”
He sounded bewildered. Mad. She wasn’t sure how she wanted him to respond, but anger wasn’t it. Mercer wished she had kept her mouth shut. Why did she think she could have walked away from Tony after revealing that?
And why did she feel even more vulnerable than before? It’s because she was breaking the rules she had blindly followed for years. Nothing is going to protect her now. Should she backtrack? Tell him she was joking?
“Mercer?” His hold tightened.
It was time to retreat. “I have to get back to work.” She couldn’t look at him. Tony always made her feel as if he could see what was going on inside her head.
“You were never married?”
“Let’s keep this between us, please?” She shouldn’t have said anything. She didn’t know what this would do, if it would get back at Reggie. The guy probably had been holding a lot of dirt on her. He was the type to have that kind of insurance.
“Why is it a secret?” He moved to stand in front of her and Mercer looked to the side. “Why pretend in the first place?”
“It’s complicated.” She wasn’t sure if she could trust him. Why hadn’t she thought of that a minute before? What had she hoped to achieve by telling him this?
“What’s going on, Mercer?”
“I don’t know. Please let go of me.”
He showed no sign of releasing her. He blocked her escape. She felt surrounded. So it made no sense that she had the urge to press her head against his shoulder and have Tony wrap his arms around her.
“Is Reggie making you say you were never married?”
Mercer went rigid. “Don’t say anything to him, okay?” She just broke the number one rule. And to an ex-cop!
“Why are you going along with it?” Tony hooked his finger under her chin firmly to direct her to face him. “Does he have something on you?”
Probably, but she wasn’t going to speculate out loud on what that could be! Mercer did her best at keeping her expression blank. “Tony, you’re out of the police force. You don’t have to interrogate me.”
“If he’s blackmailing you, that’s a crime.”
Not like she was going to call Reggie on it if her crime is more severe. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You know that if you need anything, you can ask me.”
His gentle tone slayed her. “I…can?”
“Sure you can.”
Tears unexpectedly began to burn in the back of her eyes. Huh. She thought she lost the ability to cry. She tried to brazen her way out. “What’s the catch?”
“Gorgeous, there is always a catch.” She jerked her chin away from his hand. She blinked rapidly, trying to hold back the tears when she saw Ellis by the kitchen door. “My boss is on the prowl. I have to go.”
She didn’t know if she should feel relief or disappointment when Tony reluctantly released his hold. Mercer felt his gaze on her as she walked toward the house. The guy had no idea what he was offering. One didn’t volunteer to help a girl like her. It got you nothing but a headache and a rap sheet.
“Where have you been?” Ellis whispered fiercely as she walked across the patio.
“I was chased by a swarm of killer bees,” Mercer lied, her voice dull, as she walked past him.
Nice to see that he cared. “So I ran to the dock to jump in the lake.”
Ellis caught up with her and walked by her side. “You’re still dry.”
Very observant. “Because the bees made a turn when they got one whiff of that Merriweather woman’s perfume. That’s what she gets for putting on too much.”
“Ssh!” He frantically looked around. “Someone might hear you.”
“It’s not a secret. Everyone knows she pours it on.”
“Mercer, do me a favor and keep your opinions to yourself.”
“Most of the guests are back in the house.” Ellis motioned at the kitchen door. “Get another tray and work the main floor.”
“Yes!” She hissed the words out. That was the best news she heard all night. She froze when she saw the strange look Ellis gave her. “What?”
“One more mess up, and you’re out. Remember that I’m watching you.”
Get in line, honey. His warning didn’t bother her, because her luck was changing tonight.
She hadn’t been married.
Tony stared at Mercer as she hurried away. He stood still, the warring emotions swirling inside him.
She. Hadn’t. Been. Married.
Was she telling him the truth? He didn’t like how long it took to consider that possibility. His gut instinct said she wasn’t lying. If she was, why would she do it now, and not a year ago?
“Okay, Tony,” the security guard said as he came back. “It was a few teenagers causing some noise.”
Tony nodded his head, but he wasn’t listening. Why did Mercer lie about the marriage back then? It’s no scandal for couples to live together. No need to hide it. The secret didn’t make sense.
“Yeah.” He headed for the house, mulling over the puzzle. Why would a multimillionaire who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth pretend to be married? Inheritance? Tax purposes? Or was it a mixup with the paperwork that Reggie chose not to correct?
Tony knew he could figure out the answer if Mercer wasn’t a part of the equation. She was his blind spot. His Achilles Heel.
And the woman hadn’t been married.
Tony stopped and glared at the darkening sky. All this time he lusted after Mercer but didn’t act on it. He loved her from afar, but never touched her because he thought she was taken. He had wrestled with his conscience about coveting another man’s wife when she hadn’t been.
He stood to the side of the large windows and looked into the party, searching for Mercer. He easily found her as she walked slowly through the crowd. Her graceful moves were noticeably absent as she carried a tray of appetizers, but it didn’t diminish her beauty. It was more than her looks that twisted him into knots. She had a presence that stopped him in his tracks.
Mercer paused and looked to the side of the room. There was something about the move that alerted Tony. He followed her line of vision and saw Nicole Rafferty, the youngest Graham sister.
Nicole wasn’t doing anything to cause attention. The bold pink cocktail dress she wore had no back, but that wasn’t enough to gain Mercer’s interest. The only thing Nicole was doing was talking to her husband.
From the way Nicole and Alex Rafferty stood next to each other, their heads nearly touching, anyone could tell that they were newlyweds. They created a small, intimate circle for two in the midst of a crowd.
But what made Mercer interested? He looked back at Mercer and realized she wasn’t looking at the youngest Graham sister anymore. She was mesmerized by the one wearing the pink diamond earrings.
She was going to make her move. Anticipation buzzed through his veins. He knew Mercer’s methods. The more crowded, the better. All he had to do was stand there in the shadows and observe.
He watched her slowly make her way towards Lindsay. The tension climbed up his chest. A part of him wanted to get this over and done with, while another part wished Mercer would stop and head for a different direction.
Patience… Tony stayed perfectly still. Most of his job was about waiting. He was good at being patient.
Mercer was only five people away from Lindsay.
The tension clawed up his throat. His muscles shook with the need to move, do something.
Four people… three people…
His head throbbed with tension.
Enough! He couldn’t take it anymore. He had to stop Mercer before she made the same mistake that cost her freedom. But he’d waited too late. He didn’t know if he could get to her in time.
Forget the party’s security. To hell with the earrings. Tony was determined to protect Mercer from herself.
He opened one of the patio doors and entered the house. A group of men in tuxedos were in his way. Tony jostled around them but lost sight of Mercer.
Shouldering his way toward Lindsay, Tony gave terse apologies left and right as he forged a path. He spotted Mercer. She had passed Lindsay.
Failure crashed through Tony.
He reluctantly glanced at Lindsay, torn at the prospect of seeing Mercer’s grandest achievement.
The pink ice twinkled at him.
Lindsay still wore the diamonds. Both of them. The hostess of the party continued to chat to a guest as if nothing had happened.
Tony breathed out a shaky sigh of relief. He had been wrong. Mercer didn’t take the earrings.
But she’ll try before the night is over. He’d stake his agency on it.
And it was up to him to stop her before she made the attempt. How would he keep her away? He looked around the party, wishing inspiration would strike.
His gaze rested on the entry way and a smile crept along his mouth as the idea formed…
Those were the real diamonds. The knowledge tickled Mercer as she walked by Lindsay. She didn’t need to take a jeweler’s glass and study it. Ten carats total were big enough to tell the earrings were the real deal.
Nicole was finally here, too. Mercer was ready to sag with relief. The transfer of the diamonds would happen tonight, and she would be ready to intercept.
It might not be quite “The Mercer” move she wanted. In fact, the lift would be relatively tame—almost too easy. She could get too confident and flub it up. Or someone would flub it for her.
The fine hair on the back of her neck stirred. Was he watching her? Mercer glanced around the room but couldn’t find Reggie. Was he already making his move? The competitive spirit kicked her hard.
She scanned the room again, slowly this time, as her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Reginald Whitley-Cooke wasn’t the life of the party, but neither did he blend into the woodwork. Everyone would remember he was at the party, although they wouldn’t quite recall what he said or did. Parties were always the perfect alibi for Reggie.
She stopped when she finally spotted him. He was across the room, with London artfully draped at his side. A drink was in his hand and a few guests were chuckling over something that the beautiful woman said.
But Reggie was looking straight at her. No smile. No aura of elegance. As if he forgot to put on his Cary Grant persona. And then it suddenly appeared. The wry gleam in his eye. The suave, sophistication cloaking him.
He nodded and raised his glass before taking a sip. The mock salute grated on her nerves. It was like he had a secret that he was keeping from her.
No. It was all part of the game to him. Messing with her mind. Don’t let it fluster you.
Mercer would have loved to fling her silver serving tray like a Frisbee and watch it clip his head. Knowing her luck, Reggie would catch it and lob it back at her. Only showing more panache while doing it.
She rolled her eyes at the thought and turned away, offering appetizers to more guests. It was a good thing Tony didn’t know exactly what went through her mind. He wouldn’t get near her if he did.
He probably thought she was sweet girl underneath it all. There was nothing sweet about her, but Tony was too much of a knight in shining armor to get that. He also didn’t seem to realize knights were obsolete these days.
That’s probably why she had no idea how to deal with Tony. Guys like that were exotic creatures to her. Fascinating, hot, and sexy, but hard to figure out.
Mercer slowly worked the room until the last appetizer disappeared on her tray. She stepped into the grand entrance, which was barely occupied. A group of women were making their way up the staircase, and Tony was standing by underneath the steps. He opened the closet door that was seamlessly hidden in the woodwork and peered inside.
Okay, she couldn’t avoid him. That was too obvious. He’d know she was uncomfortable about what they had discussed and it would give the topic far more importance.
So she’ll breeze right by him, say something meaningless, and keep going. She could do that, Mercer decided and started a brisk pace.
“You’re checking the coat closet?” Mercer asked him as she walked by. “Do you really think a thief would hide in there?”
“Why not?” He reached out and wrapped his arm around her waist before pulling her against him.
Mercer’s voice squeaked from her throat as her muscles went rigid. Wow, the guy was all muscle. Warm, sculpted muscle. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” he asked, pulling her into the closet with him and shutting the door.