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"I want you to steal my husband's girlfriend from him."
Jack O'Leary, lazing back in his squeaky old leather swivel chair, his blue-jeaned legs braced on the battered Steelcase desk that took up about a third of what passed for his office, stilled. He looked up from the snow globe he'd been absently toying with while Celeste Worth growled on about the lying, cheating bastard she couldn't afford to divorce because of the pre-nup from hell.
It was a variation on a theme that was all too familiar to Jack, two-thirds of whose private investigations involved the extramarital hijinks of his clients' husbands. He'd sat through more than his share of hysterics, rage, and—oh, man, the worst—quiet weeping by any number of Wronged Wives.
Madame Celeste had actually been a good deal more composed than most when he'd first broken the news to her. It had been three or four weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving, that he'd called her into the office to show her the results of his brief but productive inquiry into the illicit frolics of one Preston Wrigley Worth III. She'd skimmed the report with refreshing stoicism, glanced coolly at the eight-by-ten glossies, written him a check and left. He'd been relieved to have gotten off so easily... until half an hour ago, when she'd shown up without an appointment, bulled her way past Grady in the outer office, planted herself on the other side of the desk, and launched into an anti-Preston diatribe that was notable only for its unoriginality.
Until she came to the part about Jack stealing Preston's girlfriend from him.
"Come again?" Reaching out, Jack set the snow globe down on his desk. Within it, a swarm of little white flakes drifted and swirled around a three-dimensional representation of Santa crawling into a rooftop chimney, a bulging sack thrown over his shoulder.
"You heard me." Celeste flipped open a monogrammed cigarette case, slid a black Balkan Sobranie between her collagen-plumped, frosted coral lips, and regarded him with an air of listless expectation.
Taking his time, Jack lowered his feet to the floor and rummaged in his middle desk drawer for the book of matches he'd snagged from that topless joint on Seventh Avenue last weekend. He'd gone there to check out the owner, whose wife had suspected him of dallying with the dancers. He'd lingered long after confirming those suspicions because—and this was the pathetic part, and the reason he'd ended up tying one on that night, which he almost never did anymore—it was the first time he'd seen a woman naked, or just about, since...
Damn, had it really been a year? Sure enough; it was last December that Jessica had given him the heave-ho.
No, wait a minute. There'd been that blind date his cousin Davy had hooked him up with, but that was last summer, a good what—four or five months ago? And all it had amounted to was a forgettable one-night stand. Ditto that motor-mouthed little waitress and that bar pickup he'd regretted as soon as she'd started undressing and he'd gotten a load of the piercings.
So that made three naked women in the twelve months since Jess had walked away from the Brooklyn walk-up they'd shared and the plans they'd made amid vague protestations that "something is missing." Five days later, she was on a plane to Jamaica with Roger Babcock, her married boss. It had taken Jack about ten minutes of quick 'n' dirty detective work to ascertain the sorry truth, which was that Jess had been nailing ol' Roger on the side for over five months. Sorry and almost comically ironic, considering Jack's line of work.
He took the diamond engagement ring he'd meant to give her on Christmas Eve back to Tiffany's, then ripped down all the pine swags and wreaths she'd tacked up around the apartment and stuffed them down the incinerator.
Ho ho ho.
Celeste studied him through contacts the color of green Life Savers as he leaned forward to light her cigarette. He managed not to stare back despite his morbid fascination with the results of an over-zealous facelift, which made her look like one of those Eyeliner Barbies from the 1950s as reflected in a fun house mirror.
Spewing a plume of smoke toward the ceiling, Madame extracted from her faux leopard-print handbag a carefully scissored little newspaper clipping, which she handed across the desk to him. "I placed this ad in the personals section of the Village Voice two weeks ago."
Jack snapped on his desk lamp and held the clipping under its smoke-hazed corona of light:
WANTED: SEDUCTIVE, SELF-ASSURED MALE to take my husband's girlfriend from him. She is an attractive blonde in her early thirties who enjoys travel, fine dining, and the theater. Generous reward. Photo required.
He looked up. "You've got to be kidding."
Celeste took another drag on the cigarette, her hard green gaze fixed on him as she exhaled. "I'm not actually much of a kidder, Jack."
"How do you know she likes this stuff?" Jack asked. "Travel? The theater?"
Celeste shrugged negligently. "Doesn't everybody?"
Jack shook his head in disbelief as he re-read the ad. "You get any takers?"
"Scores of them. Every vile, larcenous knuckle-dragger in New York answered that ad. At least half of them appeared to be petty criminals and ex-cons. The few letters that were actually legible scared the hell out of me. And, my God, the photos!" She shuddered delicately. "Apes, trolls... You'd be astounded, the men who regard themselves as seductive. A woman like that..." Celeste aimed a coral-lacquered fingernail at the top print on the stack of black-and-white surveillance photos in the open file on Jack's desk. "No way would she let one of those troglodytes within a hundred feet of her."
Celeste had a point, Jack thought as he contemplated the photograph, which was one of the last batch he'd taken for this job. It was a nighttime shot of Preston Worth and his lady friend waiting beneath the awning over the entrance to the Four Seasons restaurant while a uniformed doorman ventured out in the stinging rain—or had it already turned to sleet by that point?—to hail a cab. Preston, a silver-haired, tennis-muscled blue blood, frowned in a preoccupied way as he burrowed in the pockets of his cashmere topcoat for tip money. The girlfriend, a lissome, ash-blond knockout by the name of Katherine Peale, who had evidently neglected to watch the Weather Channel that evening, hunched her shoulders as she buttoned up the jacket of her gunmetal silk dinner suit. Even with the rain and the dark and Jack's distance from the subjects—he was shooting with a telephoto lens from the recessed doorway of a palm reader's shop a dozen doors down on the other side of East Fifty-second Street—he could see that the woman was wracked with shivers.
Preston, you schmuck, he'd muttered to himself as he aimed and focused. What's the matter with you? Give her your freakin' coat.
"The first time Preston cheated on me was during our honeymoon, and he's kept it up ever since." Celeste tapped the ash from her cigarette into the potted poinsettia on the corner of Jack's desk. "Literally and figuratively. He was raised to take what he wanted when he wanted it. And from the moment he hit puberty, what he wanted was sex, and plenty of it. You wouldn't know it to look at him, but the man is utterly ravenous. He's probably been with a thousand women during the course of our marriage, and age does not seem to have slowed him down."
"If that's the case," Jack said, "why do you care so much about this Katherine Peale?"
"Because she's different. He's buying her expensive gifts, taking her out three, four nights a week—courting her from all appearances. He never does that. Oh, there might be a bouquet of roses or a dinner out, but once he's lured them into the sack, they're history. This new woman, though—God knows how long he's been seeing her. I didn't suspect a thing till I found those receipts."
Ah, yes, the telltale receipts. Three of them, tucked into her husband's wallet, documenting cash purchases made in mid-November: 3.25-carat emerald-cut diamond stud earrings from Harry Winston; a "bronze, easel-style Tiffany picture frame, dark patina, green slag glass, twelve by fourteen inches, signed," from Moody and Ives Antiques; and a "gossamer camisole and thong," both black and size small, from La Petite Coquette. Yes, I'm sure they're not for me, Celeste had told Jack during their initial meeting the next morning, adding, with an almost imperceptible little squirm, He knows how I feel about thongs.
"They didn't strike me as a couple that had been together that long," Jack said as he tossed the newspaper clipping on top of the photograph. "They were still laughing at each other's jokes that weren't funny, you know?"
"All I know is, if that woman is angling to be the next Mrs. Preston Worth, it's got to be stopped. There's far too much at stake."
"Yeah, I can see that." Jack glanced at the shopping bags Celeste had hauled in with her and dumped in the corner— Prada, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Chanel...
She noticed the direction of his gaze. " 'Tis the season, Jack. I'll bet even you buy Christmas presents."
"You'd lose that bet."
"Surely you're not that much of a hard-ass."
"Let's just say I've lost my taste for tinsel."
Celeste raised a dubious eyebrow as she took in the snow globe and poinsettia on his desk, the glittery gold garland festooning the walls, the electric candle in the window, the wreath on the door, the fleece stockings taped to the file cabinet... "Looks like somebody's been decking the halls."
"That's Grady's handiwork." Jack's nephew and assistant, although scarily efficient thanks in part to a ten-cup-a-day latte habit, had a few odd quirks, one of which was his insistence on decorating their dinky little midtown Manhattan office suite for the holidays. All the holidays. Every last one. Columbus Day; who decorated for Columbus Day? And Father's Day? With his penchant for frosty blond man-eaters devoid of maternal aspirations, Jack somehow doubted he'd be playing that particular role any time soon. As for twenty-something Grady, his childhood conviction that girls were icky and boys were cool had only gained strength with the passage of time; no patter of little feet in his future, either.
"How's ten grand sound?" Smoke trickled from Ce-leste's nostrils.
Jack cocked his head. "Sorry?"
"To do the dirty deed." Rolling her eyes at Jack's evident bemusement, Celeste said, "To get this woman away from my husband."
"For God's sake. No."
"What?" He thought about it for a second. "No. Celeste—"
"Fifty, then." She stubbed her cigarette out in the poinsettia.
"Fifty thousand dollars?" Jack sat up straight in his chair.
"But that's as high as I can go. Here." Celeste withdrew a bulging six-by-nine kraft envelope from her handbag. "This is only a down payment, of course. Five thousand now, in cash, and a check for the other forty-five when she breaks things off with Preston. That's all I can get my hands on without him finding out. Take it or leave it."
"I'm not playing hardball, Celeste, I just..." Jack scrubbed a hand over the beard stubble he hadn't bothered to shave off this morning, since he hadn't expected to meet with any clients today. Fifty thousand dollars. Almost exactly the amount he still needed to come up with to launch the high-tech security consultancy that had been his dream ever since he realized what private eyes actually do for a living. Saving that kind of scratch the old-fashioned way would take years.
"You want to count it?" Prying open the envelope's clasp with the tips of her nails, Celeste upended it onto his desk. Five packets of bills slid out—twenties bound by a paper ribbon marked "$1000." Paper money had a certain sweet, softly rumpled smell even when the bills were fairly new, as these were. It was a smell that made it hard to think straight.
His gaze riveted on the money, Jack said, "It's just about the sleaziest job I've ever been asked to do. Deceiving this woman into thinking I'm interested in her, only to get her away from—"
"Spare me your qualms, Jack. And spare yourself, too. She's a conniving, opportunistic home-wrecker angling for a rich husband. My rich husband."
Home-wrecker. It wasn't a word that got bandied about all that much anymore. Jack had heard it often enough as a kid, though. His most indelible memory, from when he was nine, was of their upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Kaminsky, screaming it out the window at his mother as she heaved her suitcases into the trunk of Mr. Kaminsky's black Thunderbird. There was a wet snow falling; her high heels were buried in slush. It was the last time Jack ever saw her.
Celeste plucked another cigarette from her case; this time she lit it herself, with a slim gold lighter. "She's not the kind of woman you should be feeling sorry for, Jack."
"I don't," he said, with real feeling.
Jack wondered if Roger Babcock's wife, who evidently knew about Jess, thought of her as a "home-wrecker." Technically, she wouldn't qualify unless Roger threw the wife over for her. It could happen. Jess was the type of woman men got stupid over.
Jack's mother had been that type. So, evidently, was this Katherine Peale. It was like there was some secret sorority of femmes fatale who didn't care what kind of havoc they wreaked in the lives of those around them, as long as they Got Their Man.
"So, will you do it?" Celeste asked on an exhalation of smoke.
Jack glanced from the packets of bills to the photograph of Katherine Peale standing next to Preston under that awning. Her hair was caught up in that artfully half-assed way some women affect, with wisps sprouting every which way, a breezy contrast to the snugly tailored silk suit with its rhinestone buttons. She had stiletto-heeled Rockette legs and, despite her slenderness, nicely rounded hips. Tame the hair and she could have been Grace Kelly's To Catch a Thief stand-in.
Spots of light winked on her earlobes.
Jack squinted to get them into focus. Diamond earrings.
He wondered if she was wearing the camisole and thong, too.
"Not such distasteful work when you think about it, eh, Jack?" Celeste watched him, smiling, as she drew on her cigarette. "Mostly indoors. No heavy lifting."
"What makes you so sure she'll have anything to do with me?"
"Because you're what women mean—exactly what they mean—when they say ‘tall, dark, and handsome.' Although a shave and a decent set of clothes wouldn't hurt. Spend some of this"—she shoved the pile of money toward him— "at the Armani shop over on Madison and you'll fulfill the job requirements quite nicely, I think."
" ‘Seductive and self-assured.' You read the ad."
" ‘Seductive' as in...you don't expect me to..."
"Consider it a job perk."
"Sex for hire? There's a name for that, Celeste."
"Why, Jack," she purred through a cloud of smoke. "I never knew you harbored such delicate sensibilities. How tedious." Stabbing her cigarette out, she said, "Suit yourself. Take her to the malt shop and woo her with ice-cream sodas. Preston and I leave for Aspen tomorrow to spend Christmas and New Year's with friends. We go every year for three weeks. That should be plenty of time to get the job done. In any event, it's all the time you've got." Snatching a pen out of the cracked coffee mug on his desk, she scrawled something on the inside cover of the file folder—a phone number. "Call me in Aspen when you've run her to ground. If Preston answers, hang up and try again later."
"I haven't said I'll do it."
She smiled all too knowingly as she plunked the pen back in the mug. "You haven't said you won't."
Excerpted from Naughty or Nice by Patricia Ryan, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Carly Phillips & Kathryn Smith.
Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Ryan.
Published in November 2001 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.