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Just Toying Around
By Rhonda Nelson
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Rhonda Nelson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Are you sure that's her?"
"Yes, that's her," Nick Devereau's brother, Ron, hissed impatiently. "What do you take me for? An idiot?"
Ninety-nine percent of the time, yes, Nick thought with a beleaguered sigh. There were times when being the responsible son was really inconvenient. Like now.
"I've done my homework on this one," Ron insisted. "That's definitely Desiree Moon."
"If you'd done your homework," Nick retorted tightly, "you'd know her real name by now."
Which would have made Nick's work considerably easier. He could have simply threatened her with a libel suit, instead of resorting to tactics so beneath him it made his gut clench with dread. Nick had foisted his substantial caseload off onto his partner, had essentially put his entire life on hold in order to handle another Ron crisis. Honestly, would he never shrug this albatross off his neck? Would he always wear an armor of guilt beneath the hardearned suit of his success?
How on earth had he let Ron talk him into this ill-conceived plan? he wondered again. Nick mentally snorted. Hell, he hadn't been talked into anything.
He'd been blackmailed. Threatened. Coerced. Sent on the you-were-Dad's-favorite Guilt Express, a one-way ticket to the land of self-reproof. It didn't matter that Nick was blameless, that he hadn't been responsible for his father's unfair favoritism. It only mattered that it was true. And therein lay the rub.
Forcing the somber thoughts away, Nick shifted in the comfortable hotel chair and continued to pretend to read the paper while he covertly studied his prey.
The infamous online sex-toy critic.
The woman Ron had asked him to seduce. Nick had flatly refused, of course. Honestly. He'd be damned before he'd become Ron's whore. But he had agreed to spy on her, charm her, to see if he could discover any information Ron might use against her to save his business.
Thank God she wasn't the pock-faced-three-hundred pound-mustached-hag-standing-at-the-ironing-board- wearing-a-muumuu nightmare his overactive imagination had tortured him with over the past week.
As a corporate attorney Nick had learned how to finesse both genders, learned how to study body language and pinpoint weaknesses, vanities. The art of flirtation was also a handy tool and Nick had mastered it over the years. Still, if she'd been the nightmare his sadistic imagination had recently plagued him with, Nick would have been hard pressed to pull off this charade. He was good, but not that good.
Nick's lips twisted into a wry grin. His conscience had devised a peculiar punishment - penance, he supposed - for agreeing to do something so underhanded. As soon as he'd committed himself to helping Ron, it had staged a rebellion in his dreams, had tantalized him with visions of himself and a voluptuous goddess in the throes of acts so carnal, so depraved that Nick could scarcely believe they could be borne of his own imagination. Then, in the dream, just as he lay poised on the brink of the ultimate, most mind-blowing orgasm ... she'd change - into the hag.
It was horrid.
And all he deserved, given what he'd agreed to do.
Regrettably, he'd been left with little choice. In addition to sending him on another lengthy guilt trip, Ron had played the Mother card, and Nick would do whatever he had to in order to protect his mother. Nick wasn't the only one Ron could play and, though Nick had tried for years, he still hadn't been able to get his mother to protect her retirement funds, shelter them out of Ron's reach. If she couldn't earn absolution for her husband's shortcomings, she'd buy it. Nick sighed. He couldn't let her do it again. It was that simple, and that complicated.
Furthermore, after Ron's last so-called loan - a substantial sum Nick had never seen a penny of returned - Nick had vowed not to lend him any more money. He would help Ron any other way he could, but the days of simply handing money over to him to help assuage his own guilt for being the favorite son were a thing of the past. It hadn't been his fault that their father had showered Nick with attention and praise and that Ron had essentially been a forgotten child. No, not forgotten, Nick realized. More like ignored. But no matter how many times Nick tried to tell himself that his father's partiality wasn't his fault, there still remained a little part of him that couldn't be convinced, that held on to the guilt.
So here he sat in the hotel lobby of one of Atlanta's premiere hotels to attend a sex-toy trade show and charm Desiree Moon, the Howard Stern of the online sex-toy world. The woman who, with her acid-tongued reviews of Ron's products, had slowly but surely run his brother's first semi-lucrative business into the ground. The only way to save the business was to discredit her as a critic. For reasons which escaped Nick, Ron suspected her of being a fraud, of lying about her expertise.
That's where Nick came in. He would spy on her, gather the necessary information to prove Ron's theory, and Ron would out her to the adult-toy world. Ron's business would rebound, thus - since Nick had absolutely refused to bail him out of another deal gone sour - Ron wouldn't approach their mother for help.
Though pride would never allow Abigail Devereau to admit it, her funds were in serious trouble from previous Ron-bail-outs and they simply couldn't withstand another handout of this magnitude. Nick knew that she'd do it anyway. She always had. That had been her way of dealing with their father's lack of attention to his youngest son. His mother had overcompensated, showering Ron with love, with gifts, with whatever she could in order to fill the void of his father's inattention. Sadly, the money would be gone before she'd run out of guilt.
So Nick had stepped in to prevent that from happening - he owed his mother too much. Though she wouldn't allow him to manage her funds - the result of Ron's interference - he still couldn't permit her to essentially commit financial suicide.
Nick wasn't absolutely certain that Ron would go to their mother, but the threat had been enough to keep Nick from calling Ron's bluff. Had been enough to propel Nick to help him. Furthermore, though he didn't always understand him, Nick loved Ron and longed for a closer relationship with him.
Besides, there was something distinctly distasteful about his mother's retirement money being used to produce and market sex toys. It was unnatural.
Just like the damned toys.
Excerpted from Just Toying Around by Rhonda Nelson Copyright © 2003 by Rhonda Nelson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.