by Cindy Procter-King
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9880884-1-2
Print ISBN: 978-0-9880884-3-6
Nikki St. James wants to get married more than anything. But what’s she to do when her fiancé spends his days sucking up to her rich father instead of helping with the simple task of, oh, setting a date? Why…fake a fling with the best man, of course!
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Nikki St. James was no criminal. Merely desperate.
And desperate times called for desperate measures.
In her cramped hiding place behind the massive rhododendron bush, Nikki pushed a cluster of white blossoms out of her face. The shingles siding the old Seattle house scratched her back through her turtleneck. Matching rhododendron-green yoga pants and black ankle boots completed her camouflage ensemble.
Normally, she would never wear such a dark shade of green.
Signaling her cousin, Karin Russell, to follow her lead, Nikki tugged on a makeshift pantyhose mask. Ouch, that hurts.
The tight nylon yanked her short curls, but it couldn’t be helped. The beige mesh screening her vision squashed a blond lock into one eye. Her breath whistled through her nostrils while her heart raced faster than a frightened rabbit’s.
Yep, on a scale of one to ten, Nikki estimated her current desperation level ran at an all-time 9.99 high. Nerves and excitement scrambled to catch up.
All things come to those who take action. Or something like that.
Spitting out a speck of pantyhose lint, Nikki turned to help Karin tuck her loose brown waves beneath an identical mask. The remaining length of hose dangled off Karin’s head like a mutated ponytail. Nikki’s cousin looked ridiculous.
Wait a minute. Did she?
Whatever. Time was running short. Nikki only hoped that, for Alex Hart, the element of surprise when they ambushed him catapulted “ridiculous” into the category of something more like “menacing.”
“Here,” she whispered, retrieving a coiled rope from the supplies on the ground and passing the loop to Karin. “The duct tape can wait until you tie his hands,” she instructed. She reached for the black pillowcase and child’s toy space gun purchased a few days ago. The rhododendron leaves rustled against her legs in the late-afternoon breeze of mid-May. “If we work fast enough, we’ll have him in the van in under two minutes.”
Karin winced. “Nikki, are you sure about this? Kidnapping Royce’s best man seems a bit drastic.”
“Karin, we’ve talked until I’m green in the face,” Nikki whispered. “Don’t you think I feel bad enough about…borrowing Alex already?”
“Then why not explain to him—?”
“I can’t. He’ll think I’m nuts. He’ll never agree to help me unless he feels he has no choice.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do.” Nikki had been acquainted with Alex Hart, her fiancé’s intended best man, for over two years. They’d met at the society engagement party her parents had hosted soon after Royce Carmichael had proposed.
However, “acquainted” was the operative word. Nikki didn’t know Alex well enough to saunter over to the intelligent history professor and casually ask his cooperation in her last-ditch effort to boot Royce into action. Although the two men had remained friends since rooming together as college freshmen, they rarely socialized. Nikki knew about Alex, but she could count on the fingers of one hand the occasions during which she’d actually talked to the guy.
Royce had explained the situation once. Between his busy schedule as an associate in her father’s dermatology practice and Alex’s determination to fast-track his way to tenure at prestigious Pacific University, neither man possessed the luxury to coddle their relationship.
Nikki couldn’t fathom sharing a similar fate with Karin. At twenty-five, she might be six years younger than Royce and his pal, but she valued friendship. She and Karin had been BFFs since childhood. In fact, they were closer than Nikki and her older sister—her parents’ favorite.
She puffed out a breath. “You’re right, kidnapping Alex Hart could be considered drastic. But, Karin, that’s the point.” Nikki’s nose itched beneath the stretched nylon. She scratched her squished nostril, and her huge diamond solitaire engagement ring glittered in the shadows of the giant rhododendron.
“Kidnapping—I mean, borrowing—Alex is the only way I can think of to get through to Royce. Talking has accomplished squat.” The nylon pressed her lashes into her eyes like tiny, spiky instruments of torture. Biting her lip, she glanced at her watch. According to her legwork, Alex Hart would arrive home any minute. “Besides, it was your brainwave that I make Royce jealous by pretending I’m attracted to another guy. That I might even sleep with him. If we dismiss the borrowing aspect, that’s really all I’m doing.”
Karin’s face paled beneath her pantyhose mask. “Nikki, that was a joke! I didn’t for one second believe you’d try to make Royce jealous by borrowing a guy from your wedding party.”
Nikki’s stomach knotted. “It has to be Alex,” she half-whispered. “Royce knows all my male friends, and he doesn’t feel threatened by a single one. No, pretending I’ve fallen for a friend of his—and not just any friend, but his best man—will prove how intolerable our situation has become. Karin, I can’t stand this forever-a-fiancée waiting. With Royce dragging his heels about us setting the date, I’m starting to believe there’ll never be a wedding, unless I do something about it. And Mother and Father seem to think I’m stalling.”
“I know, and that’s awful. But—”
“No buts.” Nikki parted the waxy bush leaves, and a cluster of blossoms riffled. She scanned the parking area several yards behind the house. Empty. She looked back at Karin. “If Royce still wants to marry me like he says, then it’s time for him to ante up. If he loves me, he’ll take this fake booty call I’ve engineered with Alex as serious indication that he’d better make an honest woman out of me fast.” Clutching the pillowcase, she pointed a finger skyward. “Nikki St. James is nobody’s fool.”
Okay, she had her doubts about that last statement. Maybe Royce was playing her for a fool. Maybe he no longer wanted to get married, but didn’t know how to tell her.
Tears pricked her eyes. She blinked them away. Think positive.
Royce was busy, that was all. Too harried to notice the flying tendency of time. Well, after the surprise she’d arranged for later tonight, he’d have to be thicker than the bricks in the little pig’s house not to take action.
Her hopes rode on that risk. Her future happiness depended on Royce’s reaction to the note she’d left on her kitchen table.
The puttering of a car in the alley announced Alex Hart’s arrival. Holding her breath, Nikki peeked through the bush again.
A classic Volkswagen Beetle pulled into the gravel parking area. As Alex Hart stepped out of the small yellow car, the sun filtering through the gray Seattle sky glinted off his neatly trimmed, nutmeg-brown hair.
Luckily, he hadn’t noticed her van parked in the alley. Or, at least, he hadn’t questioned the presence of the old vehicle.
Good, stashing the van down the road multiple times over the last week had worked.
She wanted him unprepared and completely unsuspecting.
“He’s here,” she whispered to Karin. “No more discussion. It’s too late to jam out.” Her heart jack-hammered against her ribs. She tightened her grip on the toy gun. “Get ready to jump him.”
Alex Hart wanted to vegetate. To collapse on the couch and indulge in a mind-numbing action movie while consuming mass quantities of pizza and chugging an ice-cold beer. Then sack out in front of the blaring TV with his feet sticking off the sofa—and his socks on.
To speak to no one. And not move a muscle.
To sleep the sleep of the happy dead until morning.
To take a break from playing the infested-with-departmental-politics, ivory-tower game.
Loafers crunching gravel, Alex locked his restored 1976 Super Beetle. He placed his laptop case on the hood and tugged off the glasses he wore for driving or lecturing when he felt bagged like this. He rubbed his gritty eyes.
The fatigue he swore had replaced his bone marrow during this last semester dug within him, and he pushed out a sigh. Making like a sloth over the next week would provide a welcome contrast from the hectic pace of supervising exams, attending commencement as an assistant history professor, and, this afternoon, finalizing grades on the student web portal and catering to the dean’s ego. The latter was a necessary evil of pursuing tenure that Alex abhorred.
Idiot box, here I come. He couldn’t wait.
There was nothing like the flash of ammunition jolting off a big-screen to rejuvenate a guy. With a deadline to an academic journal looming, Alex craved relaxation. In five short weeks, the second summer session would begin. He needed to prep materials for his American History seminar, which allowed him seven blissful days of slacking off, although his mind and body begged for more.
Unfortunately, assistant professors didn’t earn near enough cash to justify a quick island-paradise jaunt. He’d have to content himself with bursts of sunshine between Washington’s spring rains.
He slipped his glasses into his laptop case. Ruminating over the pizza delivery menu taped to the fridge, he flipped through his bulky keychain and ambled toward his ground-floor apartment.
As he reached the door, the overgrown shrubbery sneezed.
All right, he was haggard. Totally wiped out. As tuckered as Rip Van Winkle. But he had realized since the inquisitive age of three that bushes did not sneeze.
Shaking his head, he returned his attention to the door lock. A breeze rustled the huge shrub.
A rustle, not a sneeze.
He wasn’t going bonkers.
He slipped the key into the lock.
“Hee-yah!” The bush launched off the side of the house and landed on his back.
“Wha—?” Alex stumbled against the doorjamb. His computer case fell to the stoop as the hundred-plus-pound weight clinging to his spine bounced left and squealed. Green legs gripped his hips, pinning his arms. An elbow cinched his throat. He glimpsed a silver gun twinkling in the pale light. An instant later, a black hood shrouded his head.
A second attacker whipped a rope around his wrists, pulled them behind his back, and rapidly bound them.
Heart pounding, Alex sucked in a breath. Fabric plastered his mouth. Slim fingers knotted the hood behind his neck. Some kid—some teenagers—had ambushed him?
“Get the hell off me!” He thrust back his shoulders, but the kid’s legs squeezed tight. His assailant boasted the build of a gymnast—small, compact, and wiry-strong. Yet, in some places, curiously soft.
“I don’t think so,” the boy whispered in an obviously lowered voice. He poked the gun into Alex’s neck. Adolescent vocal chords cracked. “Please. Cooperate with me, and you won’t get hurt.”
“Me?” Alex struggled to slow the adrenaline pumping through his veins. Think! “‘Me’ generally means one. There are at least two of you.”
What sort of muggers pleaded for cooperation? Demanding money, Alex understood. But begging indicated desperation. And desperation was dangerous.
Were his attackers on drugs?
He’d give these loser punks whatever they wanted. He wouldn’t risk his life over the measly thirty bucks in his wallet.
“Try my back pocket,” he told the kid.
“Why would I do that?” the kid asked.
“Nicky, lift your butt,” the second boy whispered.
Nicky grunted and shifted higher on Alex’s back. Small, soft bumps pressed into Alex’s spine.
His stressed mind whirred.
A stretching-and-ripping sound filled the air. Tape. Thick tape. In Mugger Number Two’s possession.
They planned to rope and tape him? What was next? A little recreational tarring and feathering?
At least Alex knew one boy’s name now. Nicky. Maybe a sense of familiarity would help calm the dunce.
“Wait,” he said evenly. “You don’t have to tape me. I’ll cooperate. Nicky…” Alex didn’t dare turn his head. Not with cold steel biting his neck and Mugger Number Two awaiting the green light to wrap and seal him like a Christmas package destined for a turbulent ride through the mail. “That’s your name, right? Nicky? What you want is in my pocket.”
Now would be a perfect time for his landlords to arrive home. Or for someone driving down the alley to spot him and rush to his aid.
However, the afternoon-shift workers he rented from never failed to park out front, and the fences and overgrown shrubbery shielded his apartment door.
He’d always appreciated the extra privacy—until today.
Nicky’s shallow breathing panted in his ears. The kid moved, and the elbow cinching Alex’s throat loosened.
“I don’t want what’s in your pocket, you pervert,” Nicky said hoarsely. “I— yikes! I’m falling!”
The kid’s voice broke on a high and distinctly female shriek. The mugger’s squirming and the force of gravity toppled Alex and his assailant to the ground in a tangle of flailing limbs, soft bumps, and connecting concrete.
The gun bonked Alex’s jaw, and a warped warbling slashed the air. Like a laser, or a phaser, or something equally space-movie-ish.
That hadn’t been cold steel poking his neck! More like chilly plastic. These idiots had held him up with a toy gun. He groaned.
“Nicky!” Number Two wailed in undisguised female tones. A body part—knees?—thumped the ground. Alex sensed Number Two hovering over them. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Nicky—the female variety, which accounted for the soft bumps—murmured. “I slipped.”
Alex’s head rested on what felt like her stomach. The concrete chewed his bound hands, and the rope chafed his wrists. His knuckles hurt like a cheese grater had scraped off half their skin.
“Ooof.” Nicky wriggled beneath him. “Could you please get off me?”
Her soft voice tweaked a memory. Beneath the hood, Alex squinted.
A visual of a petite woman blossomed: big blue eyes, porcelain skin, a sexy moptop of silvery-blond curls.
“Nikki St. James?” He rolled off her. Royce Carmichael’s fiancée—the airheaded rich chick—had jumped him?
“Yes.” She sighed. “How did you guess?”
Shoes scuffled on concrete. Her accomplice must be helping her up.
“Karin, you weren’t supposed to say my name,” Nikki admonished Number Two.
“Sorry,” the woman named Karin replied.
“Don’t worry about it. We have him where we want him. That’s the main thing.”
Alex rolled his eyes as his vision adjusted to the hood. Something wacky must be going on, because Nikki St. James was as wacky as they came, according to her fiancé. Royce had bragged about Nikki’s affinity for fun and games when Alex had last met his old friend for drinks over the winter. Party games, mind games, sex games—apparently, Nikki enjoyed them all.
Royce had made a point of describing her proclivities to Alex and then had outlined the perks of their non-exclusive relationship, despite Alex’s attempts to change the subject.
To Alex, the sexual freedom of the couple’s arrangement sounded like trashy reality TV—one of those series where a group of strangers lived together, went clubbing every night, and slept around.
He’d always had difficulty pairing Nikki’s angelic looks and air of natural innocence with the blonder-than-a-blonde-joke image Royce promoted. However, at the moment, she wasn’t doing much to dispel her reputation.
He gritted his teeth. “What’s this about?”
Two sets of female hands grabbed his arms and dragged him to standing.
“Ugh.” Nikki gasped, clutching his shoulder. “You’re heavy.”
No duh. He must have seventy pounds on her. “You’re tiny.” She hadn’t answered his question. “What.” He injected steel into his voice. “Is this about?”
“That’s simple. I’m kidnapping you. Karin, please pass me the duct tape.”
Alex’s mental light bulb snapped on. Okay, now he got it. The idea was so asinine, it made perfect sense. Barely-standing-five-foot-two and bubble-headed-eyes-of-blue was throwing Royce a bachelor party.
Forget that the couple had yet to announce a wedding date, Nikki St. James was ditzy enough to throw her fiancé a bachelor party instead of allowing the best man the honors—and then screw up the festivities by abducting Alex for the crazy night ahead instead of kidnapping the groom.
“Look, I’ve had a rough week,” he said. “I need to take it easy tonight. Tell Royce I can’t make it.”
“What’s he talking about?” Karin whispered.
“Shh,” Nikki murmured. “Alex, you have to come. You’re the cheese.”
Cheese? “You mean a trap to lure Royce to the party?”
His right eyelid twitched. “You’re telling me Royce doesn’t know about tonight yet, either?”
“Uh, nope. But he will soon.” Nikki’s voice rose on a plaintive note Alex recognized from years of helping his two younger sisters deal with bonehead boyfriends. “Please, I need your help. Tonight is an important step for me and Royce. I’ve arranged everything just so.”
Something in her tone ensnared him. That same aura of innocence that contradicted her reputation as a partier.
His big-brother instincts took over. What a sucker.
“Since you put it that way, don’t sweat it. Do what you want to. I’ll play.”
Her breath whooshed out. “Thank you.”
The duct tape ripped near his ears. Alex failed to see the purpose of allowing her to tape him when his hands were already tied. However, considering that a second ago he’d promised to cooperate, he remained motionless while she and Karin bound his chest and arms with numerous passes of the thick tape—rendering him as agile as an Egyptian mummy.
“Can you see through the pillowcase?” Nikki asked.
He swore. So that was what she’d plunged over his head—an everyday pillowcase, not a hood.
Joke on him.
He peered through the black fabric. A petite figure stood in front of him. He nodded. “What’s on your head?” he asked.
She flipped a sock-shaped…thing out of her eyes. Some kind of mugger’s mask mashed her delicate features.
Pantyhose? His mouth quirked.
She ignored his question. “You can see. Darn it. Now you’ll guess where we’re going.”
“I’ll close my eyes.”
“I can’t trust you yet. Sorry. You can close them for me now, though.”
Alex shut his eyes.
“Good. Please lower your head.”
He did. And felt her tie a blindfold over the pillowcase. Double darkness.
“Point me in the direction of the donkey,” he murmured, feeling as disoriented as a nine-year-old subjected to Pin-the-Tail torture.
“No donkey. Just my van.”
“You mean that ancient Econoline parked in the alley? Isn’t it turn-of-the-century?”
“Yes. Thanks for noticing! It’s a ’96.”
“No kidding.” Alex had wondered who owned the shabby white behemoth. Never in a million years would he have guessed Nikki. Not when daddy-dermatologist with the patented miracle wrinkle cream bought his little princess anything she desired.
Or so Royce had mentioned.
“Karin, his keys and laptop case,” Princess Nikki directed her friend. “Slip the keys inside your—”
“Don’t say it,” Karin whispered.
“Oh, right. Gotcha.”
Both women stepped several feet away. “Yes, that’s perfect.” Nikki’s quiet voice carried on the afternoon breeze. “That. And that.”
Alex cocked an ear. “What and what?”
“Nothing for you to worry about,” she called.
He’d still like to know!
The women returned. “We’ll take your case with us,” Nikki said. “I don’t want someone happening along and thinking there’d been a struggle here or anything.”
He snorted. “Even though there was?”
The women escorted him to the alley, Nikki gripping one arm and Karin the other. When they stopped, he did. Nikki released his arm, and the rear van doors clacked open. Something scuffled inside the van.
“Fellas, this is the guy I told you about,” Nikki said. “Everyone stay quiet and make room. Bernie, that means you.”
The partier named Bernie whined as the women hoisted Alex into the van. Had Nikki gagged the guy? How many of Royce’s friends had these nutty chicks grabbed for tonight’s party, anyway?
Alex couldn’t tell, but a second fellow—a hulk of a man squatting beside him—lacked good oral hygiene. The oaf needed to brush his teeth. Badly. Like with a thermos brush.
“Lie down,” Nikki ordered.
Assisted by Karin, Alex obeyed. He didn’t have a choice, really. Nikki’s melodic voice was impossible to resist.
His legs protruded out of the van. As he sensed her leaning over him, his skin buzzed. She untied his wrists and pulled off the rope.
“Thanks.” Only the tape binding his arms remained. “Have you taped all of us?”
“No.” Rrrriiiip. “Just you.” She pushed up the legs of his pants and mummy-wrapped his ankles.
“Come on, Nikki, you don’t have to do that. I promised I’d cooperate.” He wriggled on the rough van carpeting.
“I’m not taking any chances.” She rubbed the duct tape, sealing it.
Bernie whined again—then barked. A high-pitched, yappy, toy-breed sound.
“Bernie,” Nikki scolded. “Shh.”
“Bernie’s a dog?”
She didn’t refute the obvious. Her footsteps scuffed back, and she whispered something indecipherable to Karin.
A sharp meow carried from above Alex’s head. His jaw hardened. “Let me guess. That’s a cat.”
“His name’s Rusty.” Nikki leaned over him again. She bent his legs, then closed one of two back doors he’d noticed on the vehicle the other day. “Don’t worry, Rusty won’t scratch you. He’s in his cat carrier.”
“That’s a relief.” What kind of lunatic took animals to a bachelor party?
Halitosis Hal loomed over the pillowcase, practicing his heavy breathing.
Make that heavy drooling. Agh!
“You don’t have a sheep in here, do you?”
“No,” Nikki answered. “Why would I?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Royce likes that sort of thing.” Don’t go there. “Never mind.” Alex inched away from hairy, hulking Hal—whoever, whatever Hal’s mammalian orientation. “Listen, Nikki, I need some reassurance here. I realize tonight is for Royce and all that, but I’m getting some weird vibes. Couldn’t you at least let me know where you’re holding this bachelor party?”
For a moment, she didn’t respond.
Then, “Who said anything about a bachelor party?”
The second rear van door slammed shut.
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