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Kevin McCabe knew thirteen-and-one-half days of pure unadulterated bliss were too good to be true. It figured that on his way back to Laramie, Texas, he would see something that just had to be investigated. And that the unmarked white van currently backed up to the rear door of the Blackberry Hill mansion would be in an area with no cell phone connections. Had he been driving his work vehicle he'd have had a way to communicate his concern. Instead, he was driving the battered four-wheel drive Jeep he'd owned since high school. It had no two-way radio or emergency communication system.
After pulling over to the side of the winding rural road and watching a woman carry armloads of stuff out of the house, stash it in the van, then dart back into the residence via the side door, he decided to scope out the situation himself. If it had been just material possessions in question, Kevin would have waited for backup. But an eighty-five-year-old woman owned the property. And Miss Sadie had had a bad year already, losing her husband of sixty-two years. Kevin wasn't sure if she was back yet from that six-week recuperative cruise she had been on, but he knew, as did everyone else in the close-knit community, that she was due home any day.
Chances were, she wasn't there now, hadn't walked in to witness the theft, or worse, been there when the thieves arrived. But if she was there, Kevin couldn't drive off and leave her. Not without first making sure Miss Sadie was okay.
Keeping an eye out for anything else suspicious, he drove slowly toward the pink brick Georgian house with the weathered gray shutters, stopping just short of the white van. Wishing he had a way to checkthe license plates, he cut the engine and got out. He walked down the long, tree-lined driveway toward the open side door, then paused to look in the windows of the rented van. It was loaded with Miss Sadie's valuables, all right, he noted grimly. Everything from a Tiffany lamp to her jewelry box and favorite rocking chair.
"May I help you?" a feminine voice asked coolly from the top of the steps. Christmas music floated merrily from the interior of the house.
Time to appear clueless about what was going on. Kevin turned away from the loot with his best "Aw, shucks, ma'am, I'm just a dumb country boy" grin, and immediately noticed several things about the woman standing beneath the portico. She wasn't a local. He was sure of that because had he ever encountered this very beautiful woman, even in passing, he definitely would have remembered her. She was dressed in a pair of olive wool slacks that lovingly gloved her slender hips and long lissome legs. A white cotton shirt, open at the throat, lay beneath an argyle sweater vest and tweed blazer. Her accent said Texas, born and bred. Her boots were the high-heeled, soft-leather type city slickers wore, their only purpose to change the tilt of her posture and make her legs look damn good. Which they did.
Reminding himself he would need to make a positive ID later, Kevin estimated the interloper was around five foot six, one hundred and twenty pounds, close to his own twenty-seven years in age and, as previously noted, curvy in all the right places. Her copper hair fell to her chin in a riot of springy curls he found incredibly sexy. And his attraction to the perpetrator didn't end there. She had an angelically round face with a straight, slender nose and a thin upper lip countered by a full lush lower lip, just right for kissing. Her peachy skin was fair and flawless save for the sprinkling of freckles; her savvy blue eyes were intelligent, wide-set and long-lashed.
Not surprisingly, she was incredibly nervous--and pretending not to be, even as she stood there with a five-foot-high plastic candy cane beside her, cupped loosely in her right hand. Although he couldn't fathom what she was doing with that ridiculous thing. The faded red-and-white plastic lawn ornament didn't look like something anyone would want to steal.
Reminding himself she could be a lot more dangerous than her sweet and sexy appearance indicated, he paused at the bottom of the stairs. Tipping his hat in her direction, he acted every bit as oblivious to the criminal wrongdoing going on as the situation demanded. "Hello. I'm Kevin McCabe."
THAT WAS THE PROBLEM with agreeing to do a last-minute job like this, in an unfamiliar part of the state, Noelle Kringle noted, not buying the name he had given her for one instant. She didn't need this kind of trouble two weeks before Christmas. And the six-foot-tall hunk in front of her was heartache personified.
Or at least he would have been if he'd bothered to clean up. The golden-brown hair peeking from beneath the brim of a bone-colored Stetson hat and falling haphazardly across his brows, over his ears and down the nape of his neck needed to be combed and cut. She estimated it had been weeks since his boyishly handsome face had been shaved. And that, she couldn't help but note a little wistfully, was a shame. The scraggly, dark brown whiskers on his face detracted from his nicely chiseled features and the sexy cleft in his chin. Not that she needed to be admiring the sensual lips, square masculine chin and arresting brown eyes of a man in ripped jeans, and a grime-smeared flannel shirt and gray Henley that had both seen better days. Especially when she feared she knew exactly why he was surreptitiously scoping out everything about the place--and her. He'd heard the rumors, too.
He moved closer, drawing her attention to the implicit threat in his broad shoulders and street-fighter's build. This was not a man she'd want to meet in a dark alley. This was a man she would want on her side. Although for whatever reason, despite his outwardly laid-back manner, he did not seem to be. "I stopped by to see Miss Sadie, if she's available," he began, casually enough.
After the way she had been raised, Noelle could spot a pretender a mile away. Not that he needed to know she was onto his game. "Actually, she's not," Noelle replied with another cool smile, urging him to hurry on back to wherever he had come from.
He kept his eyes on hers. "Do you know when she'll be back?"
"No." Noelle chanced a look behind her toward the interior of the house and, to her immense relief, heard nothing but the strains of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."
"I see." He propped one boot on the bottom step. Leaning forward, he rested an elbow on his thigh. Settling in for the duration, he charmed her with a smile. "And you are...?"
Noelle ignored the shiver of awareness that sifted through her. There was no way she was giving out that information in this day and age. She glanced at the wintry gray sky, wishing for a burst of rain that would send him running. "Too busy to stand here chatting with you." She finished his sentence for him, turning to go back in the house.
He straightened and moved along the outside of the railing. He walked right next to her so she couldn't avoid looking at him, even as he peered past her at the closed draperies and blinds that obscured the windows of every room of the house. He seemed to be tactically assessing the situation even as he formulated his next move. Another very bad sign, she thought as her pulse picked up even more.
"You seem stressed," he stated.
You don't know the half of it.
"Is there a problem in there?"
She listened hard and, to her continued relief, still heard no "suspicious" sounds coming from inside.
He paused, offered another ingratiating look. "Anything I can help you--or Miss Sadie--with?"
Noelle stopped at the edge of the landing and gripped the big plastic candy cane in front of her. "No. And there won't be a problem if you leave now." She made no effort to disguise the warning.
As she had suspected, the sexy stranger did not respond well to the veiled threat. "And if I don't?"
Noelle scanned the drive for the help that should be coming. Any minute now. All she had to do was stall... And if that meant take her bravado to the next level, so be it. She let him squirm for a few minutes. "Then I'll be forced to make a citizen's arrest."
Something shifted in his gaze, and his choked laughter turned into a cough. "On what grounds?" he asked in obvious disbelief.
She held her head high and kept her expression composed. "Coming onto Miss Sadie's property without an invitation and then refusing to leave when asked."
He tipped his hat back, letting her see his insulted expression. "I am not trespassing."
She regarded him dubiously, letting him know that she wasn't stupid, either. "We'll let the sheriff's department decide that. Frankly, I think they're going to be on my side."
The corners of his lips crooked up. "Doubtful, since I work for the sheriff's department."
She tilted her head and gave him the look she reserved for anyone who tried to snow her. "Really."
She scanned him quickly, beginning to enjoy this verbal sparring match. "Then they must have some very peculiar uniforms."
He took off his hat and shoved his hand through clean, rumpled hair. "Obviously, I'm not on duty now."
"If you ever were," Noelle muttered beneath her breath, wondering why coming outside to let this potential felon know the house was indeed occupied and thereby not available for any yuletide plundering had ever seemed like a good idea. She should have just stayed inside and hoped he didn't do anything crazy--like break a window or jimmy a door lock--while she waited for help to arrive. Instead, she was out here, with only a plastic candy cane to protect her, chatting with a smooth-talking hottie whose self-confidence apparently knew no bounds.
"Hey--" he angled a thumb at his chest, looking harmless enough for the moment "--no need to insult me."
Noelle refused to let down her guard. Still trying to buy time and keep him from figuring out she was not alone, she bantered right back, "You started it."
His brows knit together. "How?"
Telling herself she was definitely not enjoying their repartee, Noelle gave him a look that let him know she was not impressed. "By insulting my intelligence."
Frowning, he waited for her to go on.
Noelle studied his hands, wondering how his body could be so clean when his clothes were so impossibly grungy. "Pretending to be a McCabe, for starters."
"What makes you think I'm not?" he asked.
Because, as she had learned very early in life, the first rule of thumb when it came to running a con was to gain trust-- and entrée--to your mark, find common ground and get close any way you could. A swift way to do that was by selecting a respected last name and claiming a familial connection. Rule number two--most people never doubted the name you gave upon introduction. It simply didn't occur to them to question it. When a con met a mark who did, he or she usually just saved themselves the trouble and moved on. "The McCabes are one of the most well-respected families in the state." Noelle gave a phony smile. "They don't have a slacker among them."
His spine stiffened. "I assure you I am quite hardworking and successful."
"Not to mention a member of law enforcement."
The scowl on his face deepened. "I am a deputy with the Laramie County Sheriff's Department."
She nodded in exaggerated agreement, aware he hadn't so much as flashed a badge. Another telltale sign. "Sure you are. They always employ unkempt and unshaven--" although not unwashed "--bums in filthy clothing."
He looked as if he didn't know whether to laugh or strike back. "So now I'm a trespassing bum?" He rubbed his jaw with the flat of his hand in a parody of thoughtfulness. "Is that a technical term?" He tilted his head. "Maybe you should call that in and let them know you've got a vagrant on your hands. And while you're at it, that the bum's name is Kevin McCabe."
Noelle tapped her foot on the landing and felt the rotting wood shift uncertainly beneath her feet. "No need," she announced, "since they'll be here at any minute."
He swept off his hat and started up the first two steps. They creaked beneath his weight, shedding splinters of wood and aging paint. "Look, you can dis me personally all you want, later. Right now I want to check on Miss Sadie."
"I told you she's not here," Noelle said impatiently, wondering whose idea it was to put wood steps where they would be exposed to the rain, and then fail to keep them waterproofed and painted.
"Well, guess what?" The wood creaked again as he climbed yet another step. "I don't believe you."
"Then you're wrong." Noelle took one step down.
"In fact--" he came up one more "--I think you're hiding something."
Only the most important thing in the world to me. Only the reason I took this opportunity so close to the holidays-- against my better judgment. Only the reason I'm now so very sorry that I did.
He lounged against the railing, studying her openly. "And I'm not leaving until I find out what you're trying to keep me from discovering."
Panic swept through her. Noelle went down another step, the candy cane held in front of her like a battering ram. "I don't care who you are or what you think. There is no way you are getting past me into this house," she told him.