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CONFIDENCE TRICKS
by Tamara Morgan

Genre: General Contemporary Romance, Contemporary Romance

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The stiletto heel pressed against his jugular had yet to break the skin.

It was a small comfort—Asprey’s only one at the moment. Gravel dotted painfully into his cheek and temple, and his arm hung limp at his side. Only a few cords of fiery, razor-edged nerves seemed to connect the bones of his shoulder to the rest of him, and every movement was a clear reminder that he lay completely at the woman’s mercy.

That was, if she had any.

“I think maybe we should give the lady her necklace back,” Asprey offered, his words a little raspy since several handfuls of the grit from the road had made their way into his mouth. “I’ve never been partial to pearls anyway.”

Asprey couldn’t see much other than the tires of his Ducati and the sprawl of the ground before him, but he could hear Graff’s muttered curse. It was a short trip from there to imagine what his brother looked like at that moment, his nostrils all flaring and irate as he held a shotgun to the woman’s date.

“Don’t listen to him,” Graff said. “All you have to do is let my incompetent accomplice go and we’ll be on our way. It’s that easy.”

A sharp pain as the stiletto dug deeper indicated retreat wasn’t going to be as easy as Asprey had hoped.

“How about I call the police and let them decide who’s going where?” the woman asked.

That, at least, didn’t strike fear into Asprey’s heart. Cell phone reception was impossible up here—it was why they’d picked the location. Just a few hundred yards up from the highway by virtue of a dirt path that few people knew about and even fewer tried to navigate, they were hidden away in the perfect place for a quick robbery. That was the plan, anyway.

Force the car up the path. Point a shotgun. Demand the jewels.

It was hard to tell exactly where things had gone wrong. If Asprey had to guess, it was when they’d assumed their target’s girlfriend, a platinum blonde in a tight black dress, would react like every other woman in the world with a gun placed squarely in her face. A few tears, a little hysteria. Possibly a can of mace hidden in her purse.

Not so with this one. When Graff had ordered her to hand over her necklace, a string of pearls set with diamonds and boasting an estimated twenty-thousand-dollar value, she’d launched some sort of ninja attack. That was the only way to explain it. One minute, Asprey was reaching out a gloved hand to take the necklace. The next, he was about to be impaled on the end of a high heel.

Hence the stalemate. And the pain.

“How about I blow your boyfriend’s head off instead?” Graff countered.

Even though Asprey knew his brother would do no such thing—there weren’t even any bullets in the gun—the words sent a shiver down his spine. On a good night, Graff was an asshole. On a night like this, in the middle of being bested by a hundred and twenty pounds of finely crafted femininity, he was right up there with political dictators and the people at animal shelters who put kittens to sleep.

“How about someone lets me stand so we can work this out like calm, rational adults?” Asprey interrupted, keeping his tone light and pleasant. He’d always been that way—the more intense a situation got, the less concerned he appeared on the surface. It drove Graff crazy. “If it helps, I’m pretty sure you’ve dislocated my arm. I don’t pose much of a threat.”

“Maybe you should just let them have the necklace,” a third voice added. “It’s not worth anyone’s life.” The voice belonged to Todd Kennick, their target for the night. He was currently pressed up against the side of his dark blue Mercedes, Graff’s gun between his shoulder blades.

“That’s some pretty sound advice.” Asprey tried swallowing, but the lump throbbed painfully as it moved past the shoe’s point. “We wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt. Would we…Natalie?”

At the sound of her name, the woman started, and Asprey couldn’t help a feeling of triumph from swelling inside him. Okay, so he wasn’t much of a hand at robbery, as the current state of affairs indicated, but the legwork ahead of time—predicting patterns—was kind of his thing. He knew where his victims would be and when they would be there. He knew where they lived, what they read in the bathroom, how they took their coffee.

He also knew when they gave ridiculously overpriced pieces of jewelry to gorgeous women who dressed like they were one step away from the pole. Todd Kennick, forty-eight-year-old finance executive, was that man. And Natalie Hall was that woman.

“How do you know my name?” Natalie’s voice was cold, but the stabby heel loosened a little, putting Asprey even more at ease. He was even able to turn his head enough to look up the expanse of her calf, all sleek muscle and smooth skin. Ninja legs.

“Who are you?” she added.

“Some call us highwaymen. Some call us gentleman thieves,” Asprey said. He turned even more and managed to smile up at her, just inches away from a glimpse at the goods. “But if you move your leg a little bit to the right, you can call me anything you want.”

“Oh, gross,” she muttered, shifting her body just enough to close off his view. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I never joke about women’s underwear.” Wait. That didn’t come out right.

From across the gravel lot, he heard Graff’s exaggerated sigh and the cock of the shotgun—equal signs that his brother was losing patience.

“Natalie, please,” Todd cried, obviously feeling the pain of a cold ring of metal against his spine. “He’s going to kill me. Give them what they want. The necklace. The car. Anything.”

Asprey didn’t like to judge a man based solely on how he reacted in situations like this. He’d seen far too many guys lose their shit on the wrong side of a gun to believe anyone appeared in their best light when confronted with their own mortality. The big ones always cried; the rich ones offered to buy their way to salvation.

This Todd character, though—he had to be the worst. For all the man knew, Asprey planned on kidnapping his ninja girlfriend and selling her on the black market. Yet all his heroics were directed at saving his own ass, at getting the gun pointed anywhere but toward himself.

This Natalie woman could surely do better. They were practically doing her a favor here.

“I’m begging you.” Todd’s voice rose.

“But my necklace,” Natalie protested, frowning down at Asprey. “I…I love it.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Todd cried. “I’ll buy you another one. I’ll buy you three more. I don’t understand why you’re acting like this.”

Natalie must have decided three necklaces were worth it, because her heel finally pulled away. Asprey scrambled to his feet before she could re-invoke the Force or launch another stealth attack. His arm hung useless and throbbing at his side, but he was at least able to back away a few steps, angling himself behind his motorcycle. No way was he getting anywhere near that woman again—not while he couldn’t fight back.

“So, I’m supposed to hand it off, just like that?” Natalie asked, looking back and forth between Asprey and the necklace. It was clear which one she liked better. “To robbers?”

“Crazed robbers,” Asprey added helpfully.

A brief flash crossed the woman’s face as she took one last, longing look at the necklace. She wanted to fight for it, Asprey could tell. He felt similar pangs all the time—usually for his downtown loft apartment with the voice-activated control panel, or Ruby, his sweet little three-passenger Cessna Corvalis.

God, he missed that plane.

But common sense won out—it always did. Asprey had given in when the real cost of that kind of luxury became clear. The Natalie woman gave in when Graff warned her one last time to give it up or risk Todd’s untimely and gruesome death.

Resigned, but clearly unhappy about it, she moved toward Asprey with an almost feline slowness, the necklace in her outstretched hand. Now that he thought about it, she was a lot like a cat, all sleek on the outside, her long, bouncy hair and tight clothes clearly designed to encourage heavy petting. A slightly snaggled front tooth and oversized brown eyes added a touch of humanity—but the claws. As Natalie got closer, she narrowed those eyes and tensed, as if she planned on lunging at him again.

Asprey held his ground, but just barely. Best not to forget the claws.

“I’m losing my patience,” Graff growled.

Asprey offered an apologetic smile. “He’s hypoglycemic. We really should get this moving.”

“Is this supposed to be some kind of good cop, bad cop thing?” She was almost within arm’s reach now. “I’m not scared of you, you know.”

“No worries,” Asprey replied. “I’m scared enough of you for the both of us.”

A laugh—strangled and almost against her will—escaped Natalie’s throat. She jiggled the necklace, all those pearls and diamonds shimmering even though they had only the feeble Puget moon to go by. “Fine. Take it. Go buy drugs or fund a yachting excursion around the world or whatever. I hope you enjoy it.”

Asprey didn’t move. He was normally a confident man, the kind who walked into a room without hesitating, the first one to jump from a moving car or take a bite of a decorative pepper plant on a dare. But this woman disarmed him with her beauty and ninja skills.

“This isn’t a trick?” he asked.

“You’re the ones with the guns, the face masks and an impeccable sense of timing,” she said, her voice so low they were the only two who could hear it. “You tell me.”

“We just want the necklace.”

“Funny thing, that.” She threw the jewelry at him with so much force it hit his chest and bounced uselessly to the ground. “So do I.”

It seemed as good a time as any to get the hell out. As carefully as he could, Asprey squatted to retrieve the string of pearls, not once losing eye contact with the woman, hoping it would be enough. It seemed dangerous to be down near her legs again without some kind of safety net.

There was no way Asprey could ride his motorcycle out of there with just the one good arm, so he and Graff moved quickly. He slipped the necklace into his pocket and nodded once. Wordlessly, and with an understanding bred of several months of robberies, he and Graff switched places. The scene was silent save for Natalie’s careful breathing and the crunch of their feet as he and Graff took their places.

Asprey slid into the driver’s seat of their unmarked black van while Graff hopped onto the bike, making sure to keep his shotgun trained on the couple the entire time. He tossed the gun into the open door of the van at the last minute, and Asprey pushed the automatic sliding door button so that it came to a neat close.

And Graff had mocked him for adding that feature. Said it smacked of soccer-mom ambitions.

The two engines of their getaway vehicles roared into action as one, filling the air with the sound of motors gunning and men gratefully escaping the scene of the crime. Fire pokers stabbed at Asprey’s useless arm as he tried to steer, his left hand crossing over to shift the van into drive. It was going to hurt like hell to put that shoulder back into place—especially since the hospital was out of the question. Chances were he’d have to ask Graff to pull it back in for him, and of all his brother’s virtues, gentleness wasn’t the one that most often sprang to mind.

At least we have the necklace.

Say what he might about inferior medical care and gravel in his teeth, that counted for something.

Asprey cast one last look in the rearview mirror as he sped away. Half of him expected the Natalie woman to be hanging on to the undercarriage or calling on the powers combined, but she simply stood watching them go, hands on her hips, something very much like vengeance contorting the beautiful angles of her face.