Dirty trick, p.1
Dirty Trick, page 1part #1 of Perfectly Matched Series
This one is for Jill and Marcy. Thank you for making my 40th birthday so special. I love you both and can’t wait until you catch up ;op XOXOXO
Grace Love stared at the telephone she’d just hung up and blew out a sigh. Fridays were usually her favorite day of the week, but today was sliding downhill faster than Shaun White at the X-Games. Chaz Stanhope’s second annual Halloween bash was tomorrow, and she was officially dateless. Halloween was the biggest night of the year in Salem, and party playboy Chaz had invited practically every young, unmarried person in town. This year, he was expecting a record turnout. What would all those people think if the owner of Love Will Find A Way matchmaking service showed up solo to a party? Again.
Terrible PR. Especially when she and Serena were hoping to add Chaz to their elite list of male clients.
She slumped forward to rest her forehead on the smooth surface of her walnut desk, breathing in the comforting scent of lemon oil. The desk she’d inherited from her grandmother had always smelled that way. In fact, her grandmother had pretty much smelled that way, too. Tears stung her eyes at the bittersweet memories, and she inhaled deeply one more time. She had to get a grip. Showing up to a party without a date wasn’t the end of the world. If Gram was here, what would she have said? Probably, “Fuck ‘em. Go have fun, girlie,” Grace thought with a half-smile. She’d been a real pistol, all the way up to the very day cancer had taken her. Her last words to Grace were feebly whispered.
“Don’t even think about visiting tomorrow if you’re not going to bring some bourbon with you, for chrissake.”
“Hey, what’s shakin’?”
Grace lifted her head. Her best friend and partner, Serena Elliott, stood draped in the doorway, looking every bit the trust-fund brat she was, decked in head to toe Lanvin, capped off by over-sized sunglasses which she pulled off now to stare harder at Grace.
“Oh shit. This can’t be good. Desk-sniffing on a Friday? What gives?”
Leave it to Serena to pick today of all days to actually get back from a meeting when she said she would. She ran on what Grace privately thought of as “Serena Time” which was an hour later than “Regular People Time”. She kept her tone light and fished around for a smile. “Nothing. Busy and stressed, is all. How’d it go at the meeting with Rafferty?”
Serena stalked forward on her stilettos and sank into the crème leather chair in front of Grace’s hulking desk. She leaned forward and poked an accusing, scarlet-tipped finger at her. “Don’t bullshit me, missy. I know sad when I see it. What’s going on?”
Grace bit back a groan and lifted her head. Serena was a lot of things—bossy, spoiled, perpetually tardy and high maintenance—but she also had great instincts and could read people almost as well as Grace herself, which was the reason she’d brought her on as a partner in the first place. It was one of her best qualities, but that didn’t stop it from sucking sometimes. Like now. There was no keeping a secret with Serena around. She’d caught the scent of misery and wouldn’t stop until she dug her way to the bottom of it.
“Seth cancelled.” Despite the fact that her friend would never judge her for it, Grace’s cheeks burned with humiliation. Years of constant reassurances from Victor, her ex-fiancé, that no one else would want her were hard to erase even now, more than two years later, and Seth’s rejection brought old feelings bubbling to the surface.
Grace’s lips twitched. Bloodline of a princess, mouth like a trucker. Another thing to love about Serena. Not to mention, if Grace had suggested they break into Seth’s house and replace his shampoo with hair removal cream, her friend would have been pulling the car around in three seconds flat. Forget hide the bodies. Serena was the type of friend that would plant the horse head and do the wet work.
Note to self: Stop watching all those mafia movies.
Besides, there was no need for any of that. No one was getting whacked today. She and Seth had only been dating for a few weeks, and even though it was a serious bummer that she wasn’t going to have someone to escort her to the hippest party in town, when she searched for something deeper than stung pride, she came up empty-handed. Seth was…fine. Decent. Fair to middling. Not exactly the adjectives a girl hopes use when describing her boyfriend.
“Seriously, I’m going to be fine. It’s just that people are going to talk, and we’re finally getting things popping with the business. I was hoping to get some face time with Chaz and add him to the roster, not to mention all the attractive young single ladies that will be there. It’s a veritable cornucopia of new business. From a PR standpoint, it’s got to look pretty bad that neither of us have dates to this thing, you know? We’re matchmakers, for Pete’s sake. It’s embarrassing that we never seem to have men in our lives.”
“Speak for yourself,” Serena snorted. “I have a man in my life pretty much every weekend.”
Grace pursed her lips and shook her head. “Not what I meant. I mean a special man.”
“What do you mean by special? Derek has a nine inch—”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t want to hear the rest of that sentence.” A rich male voice filled the room and Grace’s foul mood instantly improved. “How are my two favorite ladies doing?” Her neighbor and friend Patrick Mathews stepped into the office, making it feel smaller by half. He was a good six feet with a body as solid at the doors he sometimes had to break down. Exactly the physique one would expect from a bonafide police hero. He was decked out in his all-black SWAT gear, and she shook off the tingles that more than a year of near-daily interaction should have long mellowed.
Why was it that the only guy who sent her sooper-sekrit sixth senses twitching happened to be totally wrong for her? If she hadn’t made one hundred and twelve new matches this year alone based on those very same tingly feelings, she would’ve started wondering if her tingler was on the fritz. It had taken a while, but she’d finally figured out that it wasn’t broken. It just only worked for other people. How was that for a kick in the ass? A matchmaker who could find true love for everyone but herself. Fabulous.
Serena didn’t bother to swallow her sigh, adding a long, low purr for good measure. “Look at you, handsome. In your little tough guy gear, all ready to come in with your big baton and take care of business.” She ran a hand through her platinum blonde hair and moved to give him what she called her “good side,” which basically consisted of her wriggling until her skirt rode up to display the vast majority of her slim thighs.
Trick took it in stride as usual, a wide grin splitting his handsome face. “Hey, Serena. How’s things?”
“Things are okay. Well, they were until Seth broke up with Grace, and now she doesn’t have a date for the party tomorrow.” Serena inched her chair around to face him more fully. “Speaking of which, what are you doing tomorrow night? Maybe you can come lend some moral support and be Grace’s date.”
While Serena flirted shamelessly with Trick out of sheer habit, Grace knew that her friend’s ultimate goal was to fix the two of them up. As if. He was one of the two people she could trust in the world and that was precisely because they weren’t a couple. He was a fantastic friend, but as a boyfriend? He was exactly the type of heartbreaker she needed to keep her distance from. She’d had more than her fair share of bad relationships, and her ex-fiancé hadn’t broken her heart. He’d obliterated it. Wrecked it. Put it through a wood-chipper and set what came out the other side on fire.
She had been so blind to his ways. Criticizing her in the bedroom in one breath and berating her for her sexual curiosity in the next, when all the while he was cheating on her with a stripper. And not the kind who was working to put herself through medical school. The kind that was making half her mone
Grace’s cheeks burned at the memory, and then flamed even higher as she felt Trick’s sympathetic blue gaze on her face.
“He doesn’t want to come, Serena. He already told you that a dozen times. Don’t make him feel bad about it. Plus, I would hardly call that thing with Seth ‘dumped.’ We weren’t even official. And you,” Grace stood and tipped her head to the to-go cartons in Trick’s hands. “The fact that you brought me sustenance is more than enough. Don’t let her guilt you. I totally get why you don’t want to come.”
And boy, did she. Trick looked like a third, sexier Hemsworth brother. With a leanly muscled body like Liam, and the more masculine facial features of Chris, he seemed out of place in modern-day Massachusetts. Like he’d been transported from the days of the Vikings via time machine. His angular jaw was perpetually peppered with tawny stubble. His eyes were the truest of blues—like a frigging Crayola crayon simply labeled “blue.” They sparkled with wit and something a little…naughty. Although Chaz had invited him to the party too, it had been grudgingly, and only because Trick had been standing there when Chaz had cornered her and Serena to make sure they were coming. Chaz liked the party life and tended to travel with an entourage of wingmen, but he loved being the best-looking guy in the room most of all. If the single ladies in Salem got wind of Trick at this shindig, Chaz would end up eating his dust.
She’d heard the term “fighting them off” before, but she’d never seen it in action until she, Serena, and Trick had gone out to happy hour for the first time. Even before she’d been accosted in the ladies room by a group of thirty-somethings and grilled about her relationship with him, they’d been eying him like he was the last rib at the barbecue. Once she’d explained that they were only friends and that Trick was, indeed, single? It was pandemonium, and every woman in the bar, ages fake ID to fifty, had let him know in no uncertain terms that they would love to be his huckleberry for the night.
He took it all in stride, and while some of them made the cut short term, he somehow managed to charm them all enough to take the sting out of his “no, thank you.” But considering she and Serena had encouraged the majority of their existing clients to attend the Halloween party in hopes of making some introductions, he would avoid it like the plague. A bar was one thing. A party stacked with desperately seeking singles was another thing altogether.
Trick stepped closer to set the cartons onto her desk, and the spicy scent of Kung Pao tickled her nose. “Yes,” she hissed, her stomach growling as if on cue. Maybe some lunch would make her feel better and give her some perspective.
Serena wrinkled her nose and stood. “You two have fun with that garbage. I think I gained a pound just smelling it.”
Her friend’s model figure came at a price, and although Grace had managed to loosen her up a little over the past year or so when it came to food, Chinese was so not on the menu.
“I’m off to meet up with that real estate agent to see the office on West Gate Street. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
They’d been scoping out some new, bigger spaces for their growing business, and Serena had taken point so far, identifying and checking out all the available properties in the area. Still, she’d gone to the last three appointments solo, and Grace was starting to feel a little guilty. She tore her gaze from the carton of food regretfully. “Do you want me to come with you?” She could eat her trail mix on the road. It would be fine.
Serena’s shook her head vehemently. “No! I will call you over if it looks like something we want to consider.”
Grace gave her the side eye. “Boy, you sure answered fast.”
“Because you’re the worst. When we got this place, the agent told you the asking rental price was twenty-two hundred a month and you were like, ‘We’ll take it!’ before he even got the words out.”
“He said that was his best price,” Grace argued, her hackles rising. She knew as soon as she said the words how ridiculous they sounded.
“That’s his job.” She looked to Trick for backup, and he nodded. “What did you think he was he going to say? ‘This place has been on the market for six months, so make me an offer and you can get it way cheaper?’ You’re so lucky to have me, I swear.”
She was right about that. There was no way to quantify the business savvy that her friend brought to the table. It was probably good for Grace to stay as far away from the negotiating table as possible. Even after all the lies Victor had told her, her nature hadn’t changed. She took people at face value, and if the real estate agent said that was the best he could do, then she believed him. Serena, on the other hand, thought everyone was full of crap. She would go look at that rental property, grab on like a pit bull, and shake until the actual best price was determined.
Grace’s stomach growled again and the decision was made. “Okay, but if you want me to see it, call me. I’ll come out and I’ll pretend I don’t speak English or something so I don’t mess with your flow.”
“Will do.” Serena glided across the room—overdoing the hip sway a little, in Grace’s opinion—and tossed a finger wiggle over her shoulder at Trick. “Make sure you keep that gun cleaned and ready to fire. Wouldn’t want to get caught with your pants down,” she called, stepping out the door and closing it behind her.
“Will do.” He chuckled and turned to Grace. “She never runs out of ‘em.”
“Never,” she said, shaking her head. “What can you do? She’d take a bullet for me, and vice versa. That’s all that matters.”
“Agreed.” He collapsed into the chair Serena had vacated and blew out a breath that sent the honey-colored lock on his forehead dancing. He’d been asking her to trim his hair for over a month now, but she kept putting him off. The last time she’d done it had wreaked havoc on her libido. Sinking her fingers into the short, thick waves, all those breast-to-shoulder incidental touches as she made her way around his big body… She’d woken up to the kinkiest dream she’d ever had, bathed in sweat, and hadn’t been able to make eye contact with him for a week.
Serena insisted that it was because she had a secret thing for Trick, but Grace knew better. It was nothing more than middle school biology. Trick was a fox, and it had been close to two years since she’d been with a man. Hell, even then it had been with Victor. She was way past due for some conjugals, but just because her body was willing didn’t mean her heart was anywhere close to ready. And if it was? It would never be ready for a wildcard like him. Nope, she and Trick were friends, and she could count the true friends she had on one hand, without the thumb. She’d never jeopardize what they had.
“You want Kung Pao or cashew pork?” he asked, brows raised.
She cleared her throat, suddenly parched. “Doesn’t matter. I’d eat the box if I had to right now.”
He pulled two sporks from the plastic bag and passed her a carton. “My mother always told me, when I settle down, it should be with a good eater. She would highly approve of you.”
Grace laughed and rolled her eyes to disguise the annoying tingle that came with his words. Maybe Trick’s mother didn’t know this, but her son was never settling down. “Thanks a lot.” He never pulled punches with her, which was both a curse and a blessing sometimes. Today, after getting dumped and finding herself dateless, it did sting her pride a little, but not enough to get her to turn down Chinese takeout.
“You know I don’t mean it like that. I like that you can eat and enjoy your food. A woman like Serena would drive me crazy. Food is the best—well, the second best, thing in the world.” His eye sparkled with a naughty gleam. “I don’t trust people who don’t allow themselves to enjoy it.”
His eyes narrowed for a quick second before his lips stretched into the standard Trick panty-melting grin. “See what I mean? Instant happiness.”
He was right about that. She didn’t know if it was his presence or the food, but she was already feeling a little better. They were quiet for a while as they ate except for some sounds that could have been misconstrued if they’d been recorded. She’d worked her way through half her chicken when he stopped her.
“Want to switch?”
She shook her head regretfully and sank back, giving the plastic utensil one more lick. “Nope. But you can have the rest of mine. I’ve got to squeeze into my dead-cheerleader-turned-ghost costume tomorrow, and I’m not interested in getting mistaken for a marshmallow.” Salem took Halloween very seriously, and if you didn’t show up to a party in costume, you didn’t get in. She patted her happy tummy and smiled. “That really hit the spot, though. So what’s up with you? How come you’re on this side of town in the middle of the day?”
Trick grabbed the white box in front of her and dug in. “We had a weapons training session over at the range, so I thought I’d surprise you.”
She’d figured something like that since he typically didn’t wear his SWAT uniform. Usually, on work days he dressed in plain clothes to deal with his routine detective work at the station. Then, if they got a call to an incident, they’d don their gear. And damn, it was some fine looking gear. Didn’t they have any extra-large t-shirts left in the pile? Jebus, the one he had on looked like it had been applied with a brush.
She tore her gaze away and squeezed out a smiled. “I appreciate both the thought and the grub, seriously. With the party tomorrow, there was no way I was getting out of here for lunch today, and you saved me from this.” She jabbed her thumb toward the bag of trail mix on her desk.
“Glad to be of service. So tell me what happened with Seth?” His eyes were warm with concern, and he gestured for her to come out with it.
“Nothing. I knew things had been going weird…like we weren’t gelling, and then this morning he called. He beat around the bush for a while, but the bottom line was that he thought we should just be friends, and it would be best if he didn’t go the party tonight.” She shrugged, trying not to let the disappointment show. Seth wasn’t her dream guy, but damn it, at least she’d had a date. “On the bright side, though, at least it wasn’t me. It was him. He assured me of that.”
“And as cheesy as it sounds, he’s right. It’s him.” His jaw went tight and he set the empty carton back on the desk. “You’re great. He’s a douchebag with no taste and a stupid job.”
She didn’t know if being an actuary was a stupid job, per se, but she appreciated his support.
“So now no date tomorrow, right?” His intense gaze belied his casual tone and she nodded slowly, unsure where this was going.
“Well, you can stop sulking. I’ll go with you.”
She stared at him hard, searching for the pity in his face. It was bad enough getting dumped, but having Trick bear witness to her humiliation made it even worse.
“We both know you don’t want to do that.”
He scrubbed at his five o’clock shadow and shrugged. “I swear, it’s cool. It’ll be fun.”
She eyed him dubiously. “Will it? You know Chaz is going to be pissy if you show up. And the women there are going to be throwing themselves at you once they figure out that we’re only friends.”
“I highly doubt th—”
She held up a hand. “Stop with the false modesty. I’ve been too many places with you for that to work on me. If they know you’re single, it’s all over. You won’t get a moment’s peace.”
He looked thoughtful for a second and then nodded, as if to himself. “So we won’t tell them. A little hand-holding, some smoldering looks,” he sent her a comically bad sexy-face, and she laughed. “No one will ask, so we don’t have to lie, but no one will bother either one of us.”
He made it sound so easy. But that kind of pretend was way too close for comfort. She’d do something stupid like knock back a few glasses of wine and jump his bones to work off the sexual tension that had been dogging her more and more lately. That would ruin everything. She couldn’t take the risk of peering down the rabbit hole, even for a night, because she might never be able to climb back out.
“I can’t let you do that.” She gave her head a decisive shake. “Besides, maybe tomorrow will be the night for me, and I’ll find a masked stranger who will sweep me off my feet.” Doubtful, since Trick had the distinction of being the only man in the world that had proven himself worthy of her far too freely given trust besides her mastiff, Gandalf. Still, maybe hell had frozen over and she’d meet someone there.
Trick hesitated and something—disappointment?—flickered across his face. It was gone so quickly, she wondered if she’d imagined it. Then he nodded, “Yeah, well, if it’s anything like last year, pay attention and stay on your toes. By midnight, things got pretty out of hand, and I heard he was going even edgier this year.”
Grace had still been pretty new in town and hadn’t been up for much socializing, but stories of the wild stuff that had gone on that night had become legend. Even if only half of it were true, she still expected this year’s bash to be a very interesting evening.
“If you change your mind, give me a call later tonight.” He stood to scoop up the empty cartons. “Alec and I are going out for happy hour if you want to swing by the Brewhouse later.”
They said their goodbyes, and he walked out, closing the door behind him. A pang of regret zinged through her and settled into her stomach, hitting her right in the Kung Pao chicken. She ran an absent hand through her hair and mused to no one in particular. “I just passed on a chance to be the object of Trick Mathews’ undivided attention and affections for a whole night. Wouldn’t the ladies in this town die if they knew?”
She could hear Grandma Astor now…
“Well you’re about a fricking half-wit sometimes, aren’t you, girlie?”
Trick stood outside Grace’s door, fist extended to rap on it again. He’d forgotten to tell her he’d be home tomorrow to take Gandalf for a walk in the morning if she needed him to. Now that he’d gotten her worked up enough that she was talking to herself in there, though, it didn’t seem like the time.
He grinned and turned away, making short work of the stairs leading out of the small rental space. At first he’d been bummed out that she hadn’t taken him up on the offer to be her fake boyfriend for the night. It was pretty much par for the course for the past year, though. He’d known since he’d met her that she was going to be a tough nut to crack. The fear that had made her leave her native southern California and had brought her to Salem over a year ago was the same fear that kept her from seeing him as anything more than a friend. She didn’t want or need another player in her life. And to be fair, her initial feeling about him was dead-on accurate.
by Christine Bell / Romance have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on50 votes