Page 28 of Forced Alliance

“Are you thinking of your mother?” he asked, sincere now for once and wanting to get inside her psyche a little bit.

“Are you asking me about my mother?” she replied with a deflection maneuver he recognized.

“Yes.”

Josie stared out over the rich stream of dark water. “She loved a man who turned out to be a criminal. She turned the other cheek to stay with him, no matter what. Now she’s broke and bitter and living in a one-bedroom condo in Atlanta.” She shrugged. “Honestly, I’m surprised she didn’t do something desperate long ago to make him stop, but she’s still alive even if she is heartbroken.” She shivered and did her eagle-eyed visual again. “I don’t want to ever be like that.”

Ah, now they were getting to the heart of the matter.

“And you resent her and all such criminals as your father, right?”

She turned and gave him a direct glance. “Yes.”

“So you resent me and all I stand for.”

“Yes.”

So much for that together time when they’d bonded last night. He’d held her close, sniffed her lemony perfume and wondered what it’d be like to kiss her. Killer, from her point of view and the disapproving slant of her eyes.

“I can’t convince you I’ve changed,” he said. “So I’ll just try to show you.”

“You have convinced me, a little bit,” she replied, surprising him. “You could have left me here last night and gone away. But you stayed.”

The thought had crossed his mind, but he’d shooed it away with the mosquitoes. He couldn’t leave this woman behind. He made light of it now. “For the French toast, yes.”

She actually laughed at that. And made his heart do a whirl that ran deeper than the water’s current. Seeing her face light up and her eyes dance could make him stay a lot longer than any French toast. But it would be just as sweet.

“Did you think I’d abandon you?” he asked, his eyes holding hers. “That I’d just run away to save myself?”

“When we first got here, yes. But I didn’t really think about anything after my head hit the pillow. And I didn’t think about it when I woke up and heard you laughing. If you’d left, I would have found you.”

“I believe that,” he said, glad for her bluntness.

“Now that we’ve settled that, why don’t we go over everything you know about this silent partner?”

“I know nothing.” He finished his sandwich, inhaling the crispy French bread with a satisfied sigh. “Armond really doesn’t trust anyone, so I had to draw him out. I think I’m only alive today because I helped him find the Benoits. He had to put up a fight regarding my fun time with the FBI to make himself look good, but surprisingly no one came forward and did me in. Now this.”

He threw a chunk of bread to a couple of wood ducks roaming the shore. “I didn’t give him up to the FBI because we really didn’t have anything to pin on him. He’s meticulous about hiding incriminating paperwork, but I’ve got a few hunches to play out. On the other hand, all the intel I was able to get is sitting on someone’s desk back at your office. The FBI left me twisting in the wind with a possible hit on my head.”

“The paintings are worth millions,” she said. “Could this be about the Benoits, then?”

“I don’t think so. He’s got them out on tour in a few select museums that are highly guarded and airtight. If anyone wanted the paintings, they’d hit the museums and art galleries first.”

She gave him a sideways glance, her hair falling like dark feathers over her cheek. “Art crime ranks high on the FBI list. I’m guessing you daydreamed about how to break that airtight security, right?”

He couldn’t deny it. “The Benoits are tempting, but if I wanted to steal his art, I could take my pick of the pieces in his mansion. Old habits die hard, but I’m done with taking what doesn’t belong to me.” He looked her in the eye. “Anything I acquire from here on out will be mine, legally and completely.”

She lifted a dark brow at that comment and probably at the way he was looking at her now. He’d daydreamed about her a lot, too, over the past few hours. But Josie Gilbert wasn’t someone who could be acquired. She was strong and sarcastic and a bit cynical. But lovely in a tough-girl way.

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