Mercer Whitley-Cooke lunged forward as the stack of silver trays cascaded from her hands. She managed to catch one as the rest crashed onto the hardwood floor.
The silence that followed was almost as deafening.
She jumped and the remaining tray slipped from her fingers. It crashed on the floor like a cymbal, punctuating her boss’s yell. Mercer winced, waiting to see Ellis storm from the kitchen. How did the catering manager know it was her? Did the guy have X-ray vision or something?
“Sorry!” she called out as she hastily picked up the trays before Ellis could walk in to see the mess. Why did these things happen when she was in his hearing range? She had to be careful and not make another mistake.
Mercer rolled her eyes at that idea. Okay, that wasn’t going to happen. How about no mistakes in the next twenty minutes?
She cast another look in the direction of the kitchen, grateful that her boss decided to stay put. The last thing she needed was to get fired. Not now. Not tonight.
The sad thing was, she wasn’t hanging on to this job for the money, even though she needed it. Minimum wage was pittance compared to what she once enjoyed. And being employed was always a good thing. The way her probation officer acted, it was a necessity.
Mercer wasn’t thinking about that. She needed this job for tonight. The elegant housewarming party was for Dominic and Lindsay Stark. Lindsay, Sabrina and Nicole Graham were rarely at these parties. They weren’t socialites by any stretch of the imagination, which made Mercer’s plan more difficult. Still, she kept at it, believing that one night she would work at a party where one of the sisters would wear the earrings for a special occasion. That night was tonight. Lindsay would wear earrings once owned by Lia Dash.
Mercer wasn’t a fan of the famous woman, but the pink diamonds sparked her interest. She closed her eyes and envisioned the jewels, remembering everything from the brilliant cut to the pink champagne color. That memory kept her going during her dark days of forced retirement from pickpocketing.
“Stop daydreaming,” one of her co-workers warned in a harsh whisper as she walked past.
Mercer opened her eyes and quickly followed the others to finish unpacking for the party. She positioned herself in the circle of employees, doing her best to blend in. She industriously polished the trays, which seemed to attract fingerprints, as the other workers chatted around her.She occasionally joined in the conversation, being careful not to talk too much about herself. The fewer questions asked, the better.
It wasn’t because she was an ex-con. This group didn’t care about that. She might even gain some respect because she put one over on the upper class. But she didn’t want them to know that she once belonged on the other side of the serving tray.
Mercer looked up at the painted vaulted ceiling and memories flickered before her eyes. Hard to believe that she was once invited to these high-society parties.Her co-workers definitely wouldn’t appreciate that she used to belong to the other team.
Little did they know that she worked hard at these parties. She became quite adept lifting wallets and money clips, usually from lecherous men who were distracted by her plunging necklines. Air-kissing the society matrons while grabbing their bracelets required more bravado and quick-thinking.
It came as a surprise that she didn’t miss the parties at all. Or the endless salon and spa visits to have every inch of her pulled, dyed, injected, buffed, varnished, waxed, tweezed, or punctured.
Pure torture. Mercer gave a shiver. It was amazing women found those visits as a form of relaxation. Pampering. Whatever. That she could do without.
The waitress next to her looked in her direction. “Cold?”
“Just a little chilly.” Mercer rubbed her arms briskly. “These uniforms are thin.”
She looked down at the scratchy white shirt, polyester black pants and red brocade vest. “That, too.” The shoes with the squeaky thick rubber soles sent the outfit straight into the fashion failure category.
Mercer finished polishing the trays and decided it was time to learn the layout of the mansion. The more comfortable she was of her surroundings, the better chance she had of getting her hands on the diamonds.
Acting as if she was heading back to the catering truck, Mercer went to the grand entry hall and looked around. One thing for sure, this house on the lake was amazing.
She’d seen plenty of mansions on the east side of Seattle – even lived in one – but this was something else. Mercer decided to venture deeper into the house, noting that the walls were painted warm, vibrant colors. The clusters of sofas, chairs and ottomans in the formal living room were top quality.
Stop gawking. She needed to memorize the walk paths and exits. Big parties were difficult to predict. They could hide you or block you. Every thief knew that grabbing the most coveted item in the most amazing manner meant nothing if you couldn’t get away.
Her gaze swept down the hallway and jerked back when she saw a familiar figure. Her stomach made a sharp twist when she recognized the lanky male in the dark suit. Her eyes widened.
What was he doing here?
As if he felt her gaze, Detective Tony Jackson turned and looked directly at her.
Wow. Tony’s brown eyes could always pack a punch. Her breath caught in her chest as she felt the warmth spread through her body. The heat radiated to the tips of her fingers and toes, zipping through her blood and dancing just underneath her skin. It tingled in her breasts and flooded her sex.
He looked good. A little too good, which irritated her. Tony Jackson seemed to have flourished during her yearlong absence.
She noticed everything from the expert cut of his light brown hair to the fine quality of his shoes and the designer of his black suit. The white shirt was expensive, but trust Tony to dismiss the black tie and leave the top button open. His shoulders were perfect to cling on, and his lean hips were just right to wrap her legs around and hold tight.
Mercer should have known that Tony would have changed. She’d like to think time froze when she was gone, waiting to start up again when she got back.
But all that time she had missed Tony. It had been a physical ache that seeped into her bones. It weighed her down until this moment. Suddenly she felt stronger now that she’d seen him, and the pain surrounding her fell away.
As much as she longed to run to Tony and jump into his arms like she always wanted to, she also fought the urge to hide. She wasn’t ready to see him. Not now. Not tonight! She had wanted to be the new and improved Mercer Whitley-Cooke before he saw her again. This could ruin everything.
Her back foot was positioned to make a quick pivot and turn away, but she knew it was too late. A quick recovery was in order. Mercer smiled and strode forward as if she still looked like a million bucks. “Hey, Gorgeous.”
“Mercer.” His brief scan made the back of her knees tingle. “Long time.”
“It didn’t have to be that way.” She moved to flip her hair and remembered she wore it short these days. It was also light red since she couldn’t maintain the costly highlighting regimen. Not that it mattered. She wasn’t trying to disappear in a room filled with blondes anymore. She hoped Tony liked redheads. “You could have visited me.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “That would have been fun.”
“You always wanted to see me behind bars.” Mercer gave a playful pout, but Tony didn’t seem to notice. Guess she needed to be pumped up with collagen for that move to be more effective.
“You weren’t in for long,” Tony pointed out, “thanks to your hotshot lawyer.”
“He was worth every penny.” Even though it meant she had no money left, but Tony didn’t need to know that.
“The sentence was ridiculously light,” Tony said as he braced his legs apart and slid his hands into his pants pockets.
“The justice system hard at work.”
“And you went to a prison that makes a five-star hotel look shabby.”
“No, not quite.” She leaned closer to confide with Tony, fighting the urge to touch him. “There was no valet service. If you leave your shoes outside your door, you won’t get them back.”
“And then you had your sentence shortened for” – he shook his head in disbelief – “good behavior.”
“I can be good. It’s been known to happen.” She put her hands on her hips. “In fact, I have been a responsible citizen since I was a guest of your lovely Department of Corrections.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Working.” She drew the word out, wondering if it was a trick question.
His gaze leisurely traveled down the length of her body. “Do I need to frisk you?”
Yes, please. She imagined his hands on her, and her sex clenched. “I usually insist on dinner and a movie first, but I’ll make the exception for you, Gorgeous.” She lifted her arms in the classic ta-da pose and twirled around. “Sure you don’t want a female officer to do it?”
“I’m not with the force anymore.”
She dropped her arms. “You finally came to your senses. It’s about time.”The relief pouring through her body immediately congealed into a lump in her stomach. The guy was a little too smart for his own good, but the red tape usually tangled him up.
No big deal. Tony was a civilian now. Even if he planned to do a citizen’s arrest, it wouldn’t happen. He never caught her, and that was back when she wore high heels and couture gowns. She would be faster than ever this time around.
“Doesn’t look like you came to your senses,” Tony said as he studied her uniform.
She gave a coquettish tilt of her head. “Why would you think that?”
“You’re working at a party where there will be someone wearing the pink diamonds you once tried to steal.”
Mercer shrugged and looked away. “Not my fault. I don’t make those decisions. I was told to show up here, and here I am.”
“And you’re going to be in the same room as the diamond earrings.”
She waved the concern away with the flick of her wrist. “I’m around a lot of jewelry these days, but I can’t do anything about it. My hands are usually full of canapés.”
“This is no coincidence. You want those diamonds. They are the only jewels you failed to grab.”
She felt the sting at that word. Failed. Gee, did he have to bring that up?
“I know you’re after them again,” Tony said, watching her face intently.
“Think what you want,” she made a show of looking at her manicure, or rather lack of one, “but it doesn’t concern you.”
“Yes it does.”
“You’re not a policeman anymore,” she reminded him with a smile.
“True, but I’m still in the business.” He pulled out a slim leather wallet from his jacket and flipped it open to reveal his identification. “I’m a private investigator.”
Mercer reluctantly took the wallet, her head spinning, as she studied Tony’s license. “Six-feet-two? You wish.”
Tony ignored that remark. “And the security team on this party works for me.”
Alarm skipped down her spine. “If the Starks are afraid the guests will take the silver, then they need a better set of friends.”
“They are more concerned about thieves targeting their friends. So I’m keeping my eye out on you,” he announced as he slipped the wallet back into his jacket. “It’ll be like old times.”
“Oooh.” Mercer smiled weakly. “Fun.”
Tony watched Mercer with satisfaction. He managed to rattle her. Good. Now maybe she would think twice before swiping the earrings.
Then again, this was Mercer. Nothing was going to stop this woman from going after the pink diamonds. He could almost admire that level of determination, but she used it for the wrong side of the law.
“I’ll see you around, Mercer.” Tony moved to leave. “I have to check the security measures before the party.”
“Security measures?” she mimicked loftily. “You make it sound like you’ve set up a web of lasers.”
“Nice try, but I’m not falling for it.” He knew what she was trying to do, but he wasn’t going to boast about their line of defense.
“Well, excuuuse me. I know how you men love to talk electronics.” She patted his chest with her hand. “Gets the testosterone running.”
The flirty touch was like an electric jolt to his system. He wanted to cover her hand with his and press her palm against his chest. Then she could feel how she made his heart thud against his ribs.
As he fought to keep his reactions in check, he almost missed the light, stealthy move. “Give it back, Mercer,” he warned her softly.
She stiffened in surprise. He saw the uncertainty flash across her features before she made an exaggerated face. “I was going to,” she said as she brandished his wallet with a theatrical flair. “There’s not a good market for a P.I. license.”
Mercer’s eyes narrowed. She wordlessly slapped the wallet into his waiting palm.
“You’re welcome,” she answered in an ungracious growl.
The French doors opened behind them and the short catering manger bustled in. “Mercer, there you are.” Ellis tossed his silk red scarf over his shoulder. “Stop flirting and get back to work.”
She scowled at her boss’s retreating figure. “I’m not flirting.”
“You call everyone Gorgeous?” Tony asked and he slid his wallet back in his pocket.
She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “It saves me from remembering names. I gotta go. I’ll see you later.”
“Bet on it.” He allowed her to take a few steps. “And Mercer?”
She paused in mid-step, but didn’t turn around. “Yeah?”
“Oh, come on.” Mercer stomped her foot and whirled around. “You couldn’t have seen that. You made a hunch, right?”
“And I also guessed that you put it in your left front pocket?”
Her hands bunched into fists before she stretched her fingers out. She walked to him and pulled the watch from her pocket. “I was testing you, you know.”
“I know.” He took the timepiece she dangled from her fingers and put it back on. “It has a loose clasp, which made it easier.”
“I don’t need any help,” she muttered as she watched him struggle with the strap. She stepped closer, and her soft breast skimmed her hand. “But you do. Here, let me.”
Her fingers were light and quick as she cinched the wristband. Her feminine grace fired his imagination. Having those fingers roam his body would be a mind-blowing experience.
“Mercer!” Ellis made her name sound like a sharp bark.
“All right, all right!” she called over her shoulder. “I have to go.” She turned and rushed down the hall and turned the corner.
Tony watched her retreat. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the sway of her hips. When she disappeared, he slowly exhaled and dragged his fingers through his hair. He knew Mercer would be here, and that she wouldn’t be able to stay away. The prior knowledge didn’t help. He didn’t know how much longer he could act indifferent.
He could predict almost everything Mercer would do. If there ever was a job for a Mercer Whitley-Cooke expert, he would be overqualified. Then again, he wouldn’t get the job because of how he felt. The more he learned about Mercer, the more fascinating she turned out to be.
He was crazy about her, but there were two things that stopped him in the past from doing something about it: Mercer had been married, and she had been a thief.
She might be single these days, but the woman was still up to no good.
It didn’t matter. He still wanted her. Tony shook his head. They might as well shoot him now, because if Mercer knew how he felt, she would use it to her advantage.
She had no idea that her flirting got to him, that it was like needles grazing sensitive skin. He used to think that she was playing him, but he had been wrong. She wanted him as much as he wanted her.
Just a few moments ago, he wanted to sweep her into his arms, hold her tight, and never let go. She had teased him about not visiting her while she had been incarcerated, but it was something he couldn’t do. Seeing her behind bars, no matter how much she deserved it, would have killed him.
It was no wonder he never caught her. His heart wasn’t fully into it, and once he realized it, he quit the force. He wasn’t doing any good there.
He had better keep his distance from that woman. She was dangerous. It didn’t matter that he saw the creative spirit inside her, or the way she strove for excellence, or even her generous nature. She was trouble, and he needed to keep away.
Shrugging off the dark thoughts, Tony raked his fingers through his hair again. Time to get back to work. He checked his watch.
His cuff link was missing.
He pressed his lips together as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Tony walked out of the hallway and searched for Mercer. He found her in the butler’s pantry unpacking glasses from crates.
She glanced up. Her look was perfectly innocent.
That was the tip-off. There was nothing innocent about the woman. Tony lifted his hand and pointed at his sleeve. “My cuff link.”
Mercer smiled. “It took you long enough.”