She held up her left hand, palm out, and the diamond ring on her finger caught the light. I watched her through the plate glass windows of the jewelry store. She considered her outstretched hand and wiggled her fingers. Small circles of light spun over her cleavage, her cheeks, and the delicate line of her throat. On her face was pure joy, a smile so big it made her nose wrinkle. She was mesmerizing; pretty enough to stop me from putting the key into my bike’s ignition. Sexy enough to stop me cold.
Straddling my bike, I took the rest of her in. Jeans, white T-shirt, long dark hair. Converse sneakers. From the side, her lower back and the curve of her ass made a tantalizing S. Every inch of her made me grip the handlebars tighter, until my leather gloves creaked against my knuckles. She flexed her wrist, and I caught a decent glimpse of the ring.
When it came to diamonds, I knew my shit. Even from outside, I knew the rock was a big one. But even with all those carats on her finger, she made the ring look good, not the other way around. She mussed up her hair with her other hand, all sexy and sassy and sinful, and the reflections off the ring darted around the shop.
I groaned into my helmet. The last thing on the planet I should’ve been doing right then was staring at a woman trying on an engagement ring inside a jewelry store. Ten-to-one, some dude in a Beemer was going to roll in and kill this buzz I was getting just from looking at her. Five-to-one, my parole officer was going to walk by and say, Norton. What the fuck? There was no good way to play this hand. And I was done playing anyway.
I gave the key a quarter turn, and that’s when she doubled down on me: the saleswoman, standing across from her, said something to make her laugh. That laugh. Fuck, that laugh. I couldn’t even hear it, but I could tell it wasn’t some shy giggle; it was a full-body wave of happiness so powerful, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. With her hand to her chest, she tossed her head back, and her long dark curls kissed the top of her ass.
Every guy’s got his thing. Some go for red heels, some go for blondes in fishnets, some have it bad for redheads in shorts that show off some ass. Not me. My thing, my type, was standing right in front of me. Long, thick dark hair. Jeans. T-shirt. Beat-up Chuck Taylors. With a laugh like that.
Nothing better on earth.
I let go of my keys. The sun slipped down below the building behind me, and my reflection faded as she came more clearly into focus, lit by the halogens recessed into the ceiling of the store. The laugh eased into a smile and softened even more as she considered the ring. She pivoted on her toes, a slow-motion twirl, still with her hand out in front of her. It gave me a chance to study her even more closely. Everything on her fit her like a glove, and for a second I could almost imagine running my fingers up those thighs, and I could almost hear the sound of her zipper coming down as I began to . . .
Forcing myself to look away, I focused on an ice cream cone someone had dropped on the asphalt. It made milky rivers run through the cracks. An ant stood at the edge and put his leg in the puddle. Temptation, man. It’s a bitch. I glanced back up at her once more—couldn’t resist—and saw now she’d put her elbows on the glass, legs straight. Hips tilted and ass lifted. A pinup in faded jeans. Hands down, the sexiest woman I’d ever seen.
She had to be spoken for; she had to be. She was standing in a jewelry store with a ring on her left hand. I couldn’t stand the idea of waiting around to see who the lucky bastard was. So I decided to do the honorable thing and get the hell out of Dodge. With a twist of the key, my bike rumbled to life, and I flipped down the visor on my helmet. I revved my engine. Next to my boot, the ant waded through the vanilla pool.
I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I couldn’t resist. I looked at her just one more time. One more for the road. One last bet before the bookie closed up shop.
Her purse swung from the crook of her elbow, and she let it slip to the ground, bending at her hips so that a strip of skin peeked out from between her jeans and her shirt. When her purse fell on its side at her feet, I noticed something slide out. It was rectangular, thin, and unmistakable.
Glass to carpet, it flew forward like an air hockey puck heading for the goal. The full-length windows let me see the whole thing. It came to a stop a few feet away from her under the slightly raised jewelry case, in the no-man’s-land between her Converse and the saleswoman’s high heels. Playing the tape forward, I knew she’d never notice that she’d lost it. Not unless she got down on her hands and knees . . . which, as ideas went, was pretty much . . .
For Chrissake, Norton. Keep your shit together.
My bike shuddered underneath me. Getting out of Dodge would be so damned easy; all I had to do was put her in gear, and I’d be gone. Buzz dead, temptation avoided. But if I drove off and let her lose her phone, without doing something to stop it . . .
I was a dick, but I wasn’t that bad. Anyway, if I went in and grabbed it for her, at least I’d get to talk to her. At least I’d get to know the color of her eyes. Maybe I’d even get to hear that laugh for myself.
So I cut the engine, and the street went silent. I pulled off my helmet and tucked my gloves inside it. I shoved my keys in my pocket and headed for the glass door, engraved with ALBUQUERQUE JEWELERS EST. 1988. As my shadow spilled into the shop, she turned to face me. Her eyes locked on to mine, and she nailed me with a killer, adorable, sweet-as-apple-pie smile.
Christ, she was gorgeous. I was gonna swoop in there, be her hero, and make my exit. That was it. One and done. I reached out to push open the door and . . .
. . . fucking coldcocked myself. My cheek mashed against the glass, my hips banged against the door handle, my boot whacked the bottom. For one god-awful second, I was a fly on a windshield, and she was in the driver’s seat. Her eyes got wide, and she did something between a laugh and a grimace, immediately looking away.
I ricocheted back off the door and saw the sign—not at eye level, but inexplicably at knuckle level—that said PLEASE PULL!
So fucking smooth. But I’d never been a guy to back out of a plan, no matter what. So I regrouped, pulled on the handle this time, and stepped inside.
I was met with a wave of cool AC, a chilly burst against the fall desert warmth, better than walking into a beer cooler at a liquor store. The place smelled clean and new, and the mirrors on all the walls sparkled like a showroom at a Windex factory. From every direction, from every surface, glimmered the goods, reflected back at me from the mirrors in the cases, like I was inside a kaleidoscope. Diamonds. Emeralds. Garnets. Peridots. Sapphires. Pearls. Rubies.
Yet for the first time in my life, the cleavage and sparkle I really wanted had nothing at all to do with jewels.
The electric eye dinged as I came through the door, but she didn’t turn toward me. Instead, she pressed her knuckle to her mouth and furrowed her eyebrows, like she was trying to stop herself from bursting out laughing. Within a few steps, I was right next to her. I knew I could play this one of two ways: pretend I hadn’t just slammed into the door, or fucking roll with it. “Bad signage,” I said.
An adorable nostril flare accompanied her nod. “Just awful.” Her eyes were a crazy, mind-bending blue. The sapphires in the case had nothing on those eyes. They were blue like a lagoon I once saw down in Mexico, so deep and so dark, all you wanted to do was dive in. Her beautiful eyes moved off me, though, and zeroed in on the door. Again she tried to push down the laugh. I turned over my shoulder and noticed what she was looking at. A smudgy circle in the shape of my face. “I have an Advil if you need one,” she said.
It was damned tempting, and I had the very real urge to double-check to make sure I wasn’t bleeding from my nose. But I hadn’t come in here for first aid. I’d come in here for her, and she was even prettier up close than I’d ever imagined she would be. Plus, she smelled damned good. Some perfume that hit the spot between dark and sweet. “That ring looks just right on you.”
She took a big breath and considered it. As I’d suspected, she was wearing it engagement-style, fourth finger on her left hand. If you want it, put a ring on it. No shit. The guy in the Beemer was surely on his goddamned way. “You think?” she asked.
“So where’s the guy who’s buying that for you?” I asked her, and took a step closer. Closer than was polite. She was a magnet, and I couldn’t help myself at all.
Well, now we’re talking. Odds on a douchebag fiancé showing up were now zero, and even better, she didn’t say it like she was bummed out about it; she said it like she was proud, like no dude on the planet was good enough to put a ring on her finger. As if her bar was set so high, legions of guys had split their poles trying to spring for it.
She had that thing that women have, when they get to their midthirties and give no fucks. When they are the perfect object of desire and own it, when they’re halfway between woman and goddess and swing their hips to say, My milkshake is the best there is. She had that confidence, that indefinable thing that makes a guy think, Fuuuuuuuck. And Christ almighty, I was thinking it. I was thinking it so hard, I damn near said it out loud.
Admittedly, my game wasn’t as strong as it used to be. I’d spent the last seven months in a place where the closest I’d gotten to a pair of breasts was a two-pack of pink coconut cupcakes in the vending machine. It was the kind of joint where guys took art classes and did yoga and talked about shit like self-betterment and finding your bliss.
So now here I was. I’d been out for barely a month, and now I was inside a jewelry store, staring at a woman who was a whole hell of a lot more alluring than the gems. Find your bliss indeed. “Nobody?” I asked her. “Doubtful.”
She gave me this sassy slow shake of her head. One curl tickled her bare arm, and her T-shirt slid off her shoulder to reveal a pink bra strap. She covered it up, but I’d seen it and wanted to see a whole lot more of it. “Nope. I’ve picked them all off. Like dating Pac-Man.”
Chemistry isn’t all that complicated, and it was this simple: I wanted her. The attitude. The hair. The eyes. The off-the-cuff Pac-Man reference. The polite way she’d deflected the fact that I’d walked into a stationary object when I saw her. Even the jeans. I was such a sucker for a woman in skintight jeans. Hers were well worn, stonewashed, high cut, and retro, with one hole over her left knee. Those weren’t some predistressed bullshit from the mall. Those were the real deal; her body had worn them out. Her hips swaying had made them fit her like that. Her delicate hands had frayed the edges of her fly. Fuck. “Maybe you haven’t met your match.”
She didn’t even answer me with a word. Or a laugh. Instead, she gave me a single goddamned wink.
Boom. I didn’t just see it; I felt it. The wink was a BB fired from a slingshot that hit me square between my eyes. Hit me harder than the plate glass door, no question. But Christ, I was forty years old, I was covered in tattoos, and I drove a goddamned Ducati. I wasn’t gonna let some woman’s wink flatten me down like a cannonball. Not even hers. Not yet.
“So you in here shopping for yourself?” I asked her as I checked her out, moving my gaze down and back up. “Diamonds and girls and all that?”
If I was good at the up-and-down, she was better. She went slower, was more deliberate, and was way more obvious. Her stare was greedy, and I dug it. Her eyes traveled down from my face to my jaw. Down my throat. Down each of my shirt buttons like she wanted to undo each one. With that stare, she took the power right out of my hands. I fucking loved it. That confidence and that fire. Her eyes landed on my belt, stayed there a beat, and came back up. “Why do I think you’re not here looking for a tie pin?”
“Got plenty at home already.” I undid the button on my right cuff and began to roll up my sleeve. She watched me do it, and I watched her watching me. She pursed her lips at first, like she was pressing lipstick on her already perfectly pink lips. Rolling up my sleeve to show off some ink made her stop pursing. And bite her bottom lip.
How you doin’? “I’m Nick.”
The handshake was a solid one—none of that wimpy cold-fish shit. Before I could flip it back on her, giving her some line like, You might be named for a star, but I’m gonna be the one to make you see them, the saleswoman came to check on us, her keys jingling on a ring, which was attached to the top of her skirt. She tottered when she walked, like her ankles were tired, or like the carpet was too thick to keep the heels steady.
“There’s your Prince Charming!” said the saleswoman, glancing from me to Stella and back again. “Aren’t you two perfect together?”
Whoa, shit. It was a shock, but only for a second, because in the mirrors past where Stella stood, I saw the two of us standing side by side. We didn’t just look good together; we looked damned good together.
So I met Stella’s stare, and she inhaled, holding her breath for an instant. We locked eyes; it was the sexiest game of chicken that ever was.
Stella broke first. She blinked once, slow and calm. “Don’t know,” she said, beginning to smile. “I don’t know if he’s ready to make an honest woman out of me.”
Awwwwww, yeah. Bring it on, beautiful. She was adorable. A blush made her cheeks brighten, and her eyes got wide and innocent. She was a sexy little chameleon, and I liked her style. Two minutes ago, she’d been undressing me with her eyes. Now she was playing the embarrassed fiancée, not sure if she was worthy of a year’s salary on her finger. But the last thing I was interested in right then was making her honest. “Been ready since the day I met you.”
If she was shocked or surprised, she didn’t show it. Instead, she pinned her tongue between her teeth and let out a nervous, breathy puff from her nose. She swallowed hard and placed her right hand to her cheek. “It’s an awful lot of money for something so tiny, Nick.”
Again, with the pursed lips, the nose wrinkle, and a quick, hot blush.
The saleswoman jingled her keys. “Well, don’t worry about that! We have a number of payment plans to suit every budget,” she said, now addressing me alone. “You’ll only marry her once. Right?”
In my head appeared a motivational poster from the art room in jail. It was a guy cave diving, somewhere green and lush. Imagine the life you want and live it. I took Stella’s hand in mine, like we were standing at a goddamned altar. I fussed with the ring, moving it side to side. Her skin was silky soft, and her hand fit perfectly in mine. I gave her hand a squeeze, and she did the same. Electricity had nothing on that buzz. “This the best you’ve got?” I asked.
The saleswoman peered over the counter at the empty spot in the display case—a spinning velvet display platform, no bigger than a silver dollar. “That’s our two-carat princess cut, sir.” She smiled quickly and glanced sheepishly at the Rolex clock on the wall. “Just so you know, I’ve got to close up shortly here.” She rolled her eyes. “Inventory. Sorry.” She tottered off to the front door, flipping the sign so that the side facing us went from COME AGAIN to OPEN.
Stella gripped my hand tighter, and her eyes moved back and forth between mine like she wasn’t sure which one to focus on. Or was too nervous to decide. “What do you think, sweetie?” she asked.
The wink had dinged me like a BB; sweetie was a sucker punch to the sternum. People had called me a shitload of things, almost none of them nice, but nobody had ever called me sweetie. Never in my life. On her lips, it sounded perfect.
It was time to give her some of her own medicine. I moved my eyes up her bare arm, along the delicate edge of her collarbone, across the hollow of her throat. I wondered about that pink bra I’d seen and if it matched her underwear. I thought about her tan lines and what kind of pattern her bikini bottoms would’ve left behind. She was making me think about things that I hadn’t thought about in months; every earthquake has a warning tremor.
“Whatever you want, gorgeous.” I ran my thumb over the back of her hand. “It’s all yours.”
She bit her lip again, hard enough to make that pretty pink flesh flash with white.
The saleswoman checked her watch and drummed her sparkly fingers on the glass case. “I’m really sorry, you two. I do need to close up.”
Stella made a big thing of frowning and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She pouted at me, the way I once saw a little girl do at a state fair when she dropped her cotton candy in a pile of sheep shit. “It’s so pretty, Nick. But we just can’t. We still haven’t paid off the pickup.”
Now we had a pickup. I could get used to this. “Doesn’t matter.”
Stella shook her head thoughtfully, like maybe she was thinking about rent and groceries and car insurance—shit that made a diamond ring seem untenable. “We’ll think about it,” Stella said. “It’s fun to dream, though.”
No doubt about that at all.
But when Stella tugged on the ring with her thumb and forefinger to take it off, it didn’t cooperate. She furrowed her eyebrows and laughed nervously, wiggling it and spinning it. “That’ll teach me to get extra-large fries with my lunch.”
The saleswoman laughed, nodding, and patted her slightly pudgy stomach. “Tell me about it, hon.”
For a few tense seconds, I stared at the ring. She twisted it and tugged it. She rocked it back and forth. She gave it a yank, but still it didn’t budge. I took her hand in mine and gave it a shot too. But didn’t have any luck. It was totally stuck.
“This isn’t embarrassing or anything,” said Stella softly as she gave it another try, doing the side-to-side rocking again. “I’m sure this is a first.”
Stella sighed hard and grabbed her purse from the floor, hooking it over her shoulder. “Thank you,” she called after the woman as she jingled away. “I really apologize. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
The saleswoman tossed her hand in the air. “Totally OK. Hang on.”
As she walked away, though, Stella transformed right before my eyes. It was subtle, but I was watching her so close that it was like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. The sweet-as-pie innocence was replaced with calm and focus. Her posture changed, the way she’d held her lips changed, even her stance changed. She shifted her hair over her shoulder and turned away from me, preventing me from seeing what she was looking for in her bag. I rolled my weight back onto my heels to get a different angle—not enough for her to notice, but enough to see what was going on. With the help of an oval tabletop mirror to my right, I saw exactly what she was up to. From the side pocket of her purse, she produced a little tube of something.
She didn’t call out to the saleswoman, but instead lowered her head slightly, allowing her hair to slip off her shoulder. I realized she was not only keeping her hands hidden from me, but also—thanks to her hair—away from the prying eyes of the black-domed security cameras in each corner of the shop. Suddenly, each detail seemed practiced. Strategic.
Damn near . . . professional.
She flipped open the top of the tube and squirted some onto her finger.
And then she did it. If I hadn’t been watching it, I wouldn’t have believed it. Houdini would’ve wept. Copperfield would’ve proposed. Blaine would have asked her to do a Vegas show with him. Once her finger was greased up, she used the thumb of her left hand to slide the diamond off her finger. It fell noiselessly into her bag. She dropped the tube of lotion on top, and the ring disappeared into the depths of her purse. Then, from the interior side pocket of the purse, she produced . . .
The same setting. The same cut. The same size.
The identical engagement ring.
I was floored. But somehow, I managed to play it cool. I kept my mouth shut and my holy shiiiiiiit to myself. She didn’t know I’d seen her, and I wasn’t going to blow her cover. Only an asshole interrupts a magician in the middle of an act.
The saleswoman tottered back toward us. The fake was on Stella’s finger, and the real ring was nowhere to be seen. “Here you go, hon,” said the woman, holding out a bottle of lotion with the lid already undone. “Smells real good too.” She squirted a glop of the pink liquid on Stella’s finger, making the whole place smell like laundry detergent.
Stella worked some lotion around her ring finger and slipped off the fake with a big sigh. “Phew! That was a close one.”
The saleswoman just giggled. “No worries. Happens more than you’d think,” she said, and took the keys from her skirt. Using a jewelry cloth, she cleaned the lotion off the ring until it sparkled again, set it on its spinning velvet platform, and locked up the case.
And I thought I’d found my bliss already.
“Thanks so much for all your help,” Stella said, and zipped up her purse.
I felt like I was dreaming. Never in my whole life had I seen anything so goddamned smooth. She seemed sweet, she looked so sexy, and to top it all off, she was utterly badass. I needed to get my hands on her. Now.
“My pleasure,” replied the saleswoman. She refastened her key ring to her skirt and picked up a dustpan on a stick and a broom. “And congrats on your engagement! Please do come back and see us. I’ll be here at nine tomorrow.”
Stella beamed and grabbed my hand. “We’ll be back, won’t we . . . honey?”
I looked her straight in the eye. I was willing to play this one out however she wanted, but the only place I had any intention of being at nine tomorrow morning was with her. In bed. “I’m sure we will.”
Stella hit me with another wink—one more of those and I might actually pass the hell out—and got up on her tiptoes. She pressed a kiss to my cheek. Her hair was cool against my jaw, and her body felt perfect against mine. “See you at home, sweetie,” she said, then headed for the door. I was right on her heels, just a few strides behind her. Stella walked out and the electric eye dinged, but before I could get to the door, the saleswoman stopped me.
“Oh! Sir! I think your fiancée dropped this!” I turned around to find her looking down at the ground. In the dustpan, next to a straw wrapper and a hard candy, sat Stella’s phone.
The phone. Between the couples role-play and the first-degree larceny, I’d totally forgotten what the hell I was doing. I grabbed it from the dustpan. The cell phone’s case was all rhinestones, with a big pink star in the middle. Behind me, I heard the noise of an engine roaring to life. I turned to see her zooming away in a white Wrangler. The top was down, and she had her sunglasses on and a huge smile on her face. As she turned on her left-turn signal, I thanked the saleswoman and made a beeline for the door.
For the first time in my life, as a dude and as a criminal, I realized that I wasn’t the one being chased. I was about to be the one doing the chasing. And all I could think was . . .
“Push, sir! Don’t pull!” chirped the saleswoman.
. . . Game on.