While You Were Making Other Plans

Jenifer K. Leigh


Thursday afternoon found Ren in her usual haunt, in the back of Joey’s bar, watching Joey’s granddaughter Drea try and fail to teach Matt how to play pool. You’d think a guy with a physics degree and enough hand-eye coordination to get through most video games in a day would be a master, but apparently those skills were non-transferable.

Joey’s sat unmarked on a side street in that stretch of Brooklyn between Park Slope and Sunset Park that remained stubbornly ungentrified. Most of the clientele were from the neighborhood, a mix of Chinese, Hispanic and black that managed to live side by side well enough, and the three members of Ren’s tight-knit crew had all grown up within a few blocks of the bar. Joey’s family was Chinese and had lived in the area for decades, though Drea rebelled by dying her hair pink and using the money she made from working at the bar to go to as many driving schools as she could find. Matt’s family was relatively new, having moved from Puerto Rico in the late 1960s, and while no one had thought he would come back after school, he’d decided academia just wasn’t for him. Ren’s father Tom had moved there to marry her mother, who was from one of the oldest black families in the neighborhood, and Ren kept it as a home base when she got back from getting her art history degree and joined the family business of con artistry.

Ren was sitting at a nearby table, leafing through the paper, on the hunt for ideas for their next job. Not that they were in dire straits yet—their last operation had netted quite a tidy sum—but her father had taught her never to let an opportunity pass her by through inattention. That’s what separated those who thrived from those who washed out. Despite Matt’s protests that she was some kind of luddite, she preferred to do her initial research offline. Something about the measured pace of flipping through the actual paper, getting newsprint on her finger tips, put her in just the right sort of meditative state for ideas to take hold.

Okay, so they hadn’t in a few months, but Ren had faith.

She was trying to decide whether to order another beer or save Matt from his lesson with an impromptu trip to a museum when she heard a wolf-whistle from one of the regulars at the bar and looked up. In the doorway was what could most accurately be called a dame—stacked, blonde, long legs in high heels, all wrapped up in a figure-hugging dress—and by the way she paused and looked around the room, she knew exactly the kind of effect she could have. Not to mention that she was a white girl, and there were not a lot of white folks wandering into Joey’s Bar in the middle of a weekday.

Ren was surprised when the dame made a beeline to her own table, and took a seat opposite her.

“Hello, Serena,” she said. “I’m Margaret. I’m a friend of Tom’s, and since he’s away I was hoping you could help me.” She crossed her legs.

Ren’s father was indeed doing fifteen to eighteen months upstate for passing phony state ID cards, a sentence that would only enhance his reputation as the go-to guy for paper in the city, and for her part Ren was having fun watching the vacuum that had been created by his absence. But only a real friend of her father’s would call her by her proper name, or indeed even know of her existence. Margaret looked like she might have been around back in the old days; she was at least fifty, if well-preserved.

“I don’t know where his plates are, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ren said, because she wasn’t in the paper business and wasn’t looking to get in now.

“Oh none of that,” the woman said, making a brushing motion with one well-manicured hand. “I hear you put together quite a good little crew when you struck out on your own. I’d like to offer you a job, if you’re interested. “

Ren bristled inwardly at Margaret’s condescension. She, Drea and Matt were more than “quite a good little crew” thank you very much, and with Drea to take care of transit and anything mechanical, Matt to deal with all the tech, and her own skills at planning and being the face of whatever con they were running, Ren didn’t know why they’d need anyone else. She was proud of her crew and the reputation they were building for themselves—a reputation that apparently had reached Margaret. But the older generation couldn’t all be as excellent as her father, and having reactions when someone was offering you a job was bad strategy.

So Ren merely raised her eyebrows. “Go on.”

“Just went through a breakup,” she said, “and when it comes time to split up the record collection you find yourself fighting over the Ella box set, you know? And there was one particular item I didn’t make a fuss about at the time—a nice little rock, part of our first haul as a team, more sentimental than anything else.” She glanced at Matt. “But I’m sure you know all about that.”

“Oh, we’re not—”

“Pity,” Margaret replied, smiling a little. “Anyway once that sentiment had turned sour, I didn’t want it, and I still don’t, but I’ll be damned if Donny’s going to give it to that little trollop he’s parading around with.”

“So he’s got a new girl,” Ren said. “It happens.”

Margaret sniffed. “You know that saying about trading in the fifty-year-old for two twenty-five-year-olds?” she asked. “He traded me in for a model with money.” She pulled a magazine clipping out of her bag and laid it in front of Ren.

“Gemma Hays is Houston Deb of the Year 2007,” the headline read, and below it was the photograph of a young beautiful woman with long dark hair, a model figure, and the fine glow that only a lifetime of wealth could bestow. She was all in white, posing with what Ren assumed was her father, his breast puffed up with pride, or vanity. She wondered what it would be like to live in a city where being the “Deb of the Year” actually meant something.

Margaret poked one red fingernail at the photo. “I’ll be damned if she’s going to wear my emerald,” she said.

“You said you didn’t want it,” Ren pointed out.

“No, but I stole it, fair and square,” she replied. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

Ren looked from the photograph to the woman sitting opposite her, and she had to admit to herself, she was feeling a lot of sympathy. Margaret might know how to work her assets, but she was no size two, and the bleach was probably hiding a lot more gray hairs these days. Ren had never relied on her beauty—didn’t have much of it to rely on—but she knew how rough aging was on the girls that did. She’d seen it happen to her own mother.

“All right,” Ren said. “Give me the details.”

***

Tom had taught Serena that the prettier the plan, the more ugly the situation if it went wrong. Her reaction to this was to make a lot of contingencies, as many hidden exits and trap doors as possible, so any plan could be aborted mid-stream with no more than a code word.

Halfway through the lead up to the caper, when they were already in Houston, she realized that she probably should stop trying to outsmart her father and just listen to his damn advice.

“I’d say ‘bitch set us up,’” Drea said, “but I think that’s considered politically incorrect.”

“What is this?” Ren asked, looking at the picture Matt had just slapped down on the table in front of her.”

“That,” he said, “is Genevieve Ross, Houston Deb of the Year 1979 and Gemma Hays’s mother,” he said, then pointed at her neck. “And that is the necklace we’re supposed to be stealing tomorrow night for your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Ren said absently as she got a closer look at the photograph. “But you’re right. Fuck.” She tipped her head back and closed her eyes, letting her thoughts wander and trying not to give in to the temptation to call her father.

“Well,” she said after a moment, “either Margaret is just being vindictive, or she and Donny are playing out a long con.”

“And playing us either way,” Drea said. “Which pisses me off.”

“We could just back out,” Matt said.

Ren shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “Already spent some of the money on the switch. Besides, I don’t much like being taken for a patsy, do you?”

Matt shook his head. “Just thought someone should say it,” he replied. “So what’s the plan, keep it for ourselves?”

“Nah,” she said. “I don’t want to have to fence that stone.” She tapped her fingers on the table, then noticed, on top of a pile of papers, the Schedule of Events on the invitation to the charity gambling cruise the next evening—an event that Gemma Hays was co-hosting and Margaret had suggested as Gemma was sure to be wearing the emerald. But there wouldn’t just be gambling; also on the roster was a silent auction, an art show, a fashion show, and that most beloved event of moneyed women of a certain age, the bachelor auction.

“Uh-oh,” Drea said. “She’s got another idea.”

“You looked through Gemma’s history,” Ren said. “What’s her type?”

“Tall, dark and handsome,” Drea replied, shrugging.

“Well, two out of three ain’t bad,” Ren said, smiling and pointing at the blurb for the bachelor auction.

“No,” Matt said, backing up, his eyes wide. “You are not putting me up for sale like a prize cow.”

“Some prize,” Drea said.

“It’s unseemly,” he said. “I’m—I’m a feminist!”

“You’ll be fine,” Ren said. “Drea and I will drive up the price and we’ll put enough in the bio for Gemma to bite.”

“You told me when you brought me into this that I wouldn’t have to be the face,” he said. “You know I’m not good with people.”

“Well, Matt, we need you, so it’s time to put on your big girl pants—”

“Big boy pants, at least—”

“—and come to the aid of the party.” She gave him the look that she’d grown up seeing her mother give her father, the one that said, “you cannot say no to me right now,” and he sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “But Drea’s taking me to get the tux.”

***

Ren had never been one for dressing up; for her one costume was much like another, just part of the character. And she’d seen from her mother’s endless primping that glamour could be pretty damn hollow. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t do it up right, especially on a night when, strangely, she wasn’t supposed to be anyone but herself; if Margaret knew her by sight then so did Donny, so there was no point in disguise. Her braids were coiled into a chignon, and she wore a slinky orange dress that shimmered against her dark skin. The heels she could do without, but they slipped off easily and she’d always been a better runner in bare feet.

Ren wouldn’t see Matt until he took the stage at the auction. Getting him in hadn’t been particularly difficult—there was always a shortage of young available men for these things, and the bio they’d made for him was a killer. But he’d still been in jeans when he gave Ren and Drea their tech, and Ren had been weirdly disappointed.

She spotted Drea across the room, her bright red hair under a blonde wig. Margaret hadn’t gotten that good a look at Drea that day at Joey’s, and they needed someone on this job to not draw much attention.

Ren activated the mike nestled at her temple. “Seen either of them yet?” she asked.

“Gemma’s a hands-on patron apparently,” Drea replied. “Doing a lot of running back and forth. Last I saw Donny he was holding down the bar in the casino.”

“Early bird?” she asked, as the gambling wouldn’t start for another hour.

“Something like that,” Drea said.

“Hey, cut the chatter on the line, would ya?” Matt said. “I’m trying to get into character.”

“You already look the part,” Drea said. “That’s half the battle.”

“Just turn on that Latin charm, Mateo,” Ren said. “You’ll have those ladies eating out of your hands.”

“Or licking body shots off your chest,” Drea added.

“I’m not a stripper,” Matt replied. “And I hate these contacts.”

“Eye candy only wears glasses ironically,” Drea said, “and this isn’t that crowd.”

Ren walked into the hall being used for the auction, and there was Gemma. “I’ve found our lady. Drea, you should get over here soon.”

“On it,” Drea said.

“Buck up, buttercup,” Ren said to Matt. “Only our entire scheme is riding on your admittedly limited charm.”

“No pressure,” Drea said.

Matt coughed. “I think I’m going to be sick,” he said.

“Make sure you have a mint after,” Ren replied.

The room for the action had a stage in front with a thrust down the middle, and the audience was seated around small tables, not unlike a nightclub. Ren sat in the middle of the crowd, making sure she was well within Gemma’s sightline. She saw Drea come into the room out of the corner of her eye and on the opposite side of the stage.

A woman with perfect, gravity-defying hair came out on stage, microphone in hand. “Hello ladies! I’m Camilla Clark from Channel 9. Are you ready to raise some money for those sick kids by buying some man-flesh?” The crowd roared, high-pitched and slightly over-excited, and Ren worked hard not to roll her eyes. “Great! Let’s get our first guy out here!”

The first few fellas were young, looked like sons of privilege—just some eye candy to warm up the crowd, let the younger ladies with smaller purses get in on the fun. Ren was impressed to see that Matt was well down the list; apparently that bio had been better than even she’d thought when she wrote it.

When the men in their early thirties started to appear, Ren bid here and there to establish her cover. Drea was a touch more aggressive; she’d grown up going to restaurant equipment auctions with her grandfather and had more of a feel for their rhythms.

“Our next bachelor is Dr. Marc Sanchez!”

Ren looked up, and if she hadn’t known Matt’s alias she never would have recognized him.

No, that wasn’t fair; it was his face, his dark hair slicked back to make him look more elegant, his broad shoulders and narrow waist accentuated by the cut of the tuxedo Drea had so expertly selected. It was his intelligence they were selling with the faculty-at-UT Austin cover story.

But the way he walked—a self-assured, loose-limbed lope rather than his usual spastic flailing—that made him not seem all that like her Matt.

Then he smirked and yeah, that was her guy.

“Didn’t I come up to your standard?” he asked over the radio, muttering through his smile, and it was like he was whispering into her ear.

“You look great,” Ren said.

“Then why aren’t you bidding?” he asked.

“Yeah, help a girl out!” Drea said.

“Oh! Sorry,” Ren said, and raised her paddle. Drea responded, and then Gemma got in on the act. They played her out, Drea coaching Ren on bidding, goading Gemma ever higher. Ren almost forgot to feel sorry for how the kid was being played by Donny and Margaret, even by her own crew, as Gemma behaved more and more entitled as they went. Then Matt winked at Gemma and—

“Five thousand dollars!” Gemma called out, her paddle raised high in the air, outbidding Ren by over two grand.

“Good job, Matty,” Drea said.

“Going once? Going twice?”

Ren and Drea shook their heads.

“Sold! To one of our hostesses for the evening!”

Ren slipped out of the room during the applause, as she needed to get into position in the casino. Just lucky that it meant she didn’t have to watch Gemma collect her prize.

Donny was still at the bar, so she sprung her trap.

“Well,” she said, sitting down next to him. “Fancy meeting an old friend of Tom’s here.”

He smiled broadly, showing a line of large, square teeth. It was then that she placed him from her childhood, when he’d had more hair and a mustache, but those teeth were unmistakeable. She also remembered that Tom didn’t think much of him.

“I’d heard little Serena was all grown up,” he said. “Let me get you a drink.”

“Why not?” she said, and ordered a vodka tonic from the bartender.

“How’s the old man?” Donny asked.

“Enjoying his rest,” she replied, smiling back almost as insincerely.

He looked her up and down, more to categorize her outfit than with any real sexual heat, and raised an eyebrow. “You working?” he asked.

She cocked her head because really, like she’d answer that? “Are you?”

“All right, all right,” he said, chuckling, and held his hands up in surrender. “But I have been hearing good things about you. Taken up the family business?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she replied. “Who’ve you heard from?”

“Oh you know us old timers. We gossip.”

She smiled back. “Well, I should get going; tables are going to open soon.”

“Now, Serena, don’t you get too enthralled by those table games,” he said, actually wagging a finger at her. “They’ve been the ruin of many an enterprising young man.”

“Good thing I’m not a man, then,” she said, slipping off the stool and holding out her hand. “I’ll see you around, I’m sure.”

“Aww, give us a hug,” he said, standing up and pulling her into one—and of course, taking the opportunity to pat her behind.

She grit her teeth to keep from shuddering in her revulsion. “Good to see you, Donny,” she said, walking away with her cocktail.

“Good luck, Serena,” he said to her, holding her eyes for a moment.

Damn, she knew it. “Thanks,” she said, and walked away.

She moved just in the nick of time, as Gemma came in just then, parading Matt around the room to her friends. She brought him over to Donny, who barely looked at him, and all but patted Gemma on the head and told her to go play.

Ren felt odd, watching Gemma, a little shiver of wrongness crawling down her spine. “Where are you, Drea?” she asked into her mike.

“Following Margaret out of the fashion show,” she said. “You?”

“Got eyes on Matt,” Ren replied. “Made contact with Donny and by the way he’s totally in on it, the bastard.”

Drea snorted in response.

Matt escorted Gemma to the blackjack table, where they sat down. He’d turned his mike off—good thing, as Ren didn’t need to hear his patter—but she wanted to make sure his earpiece was still functional.

“Don’t let them catch you counting cards,” she said. “Remember those sick kids.”

Matt quickly looked over his shoulder, away from Gemma, and scowled.

“Matt’s earpiece is still working, then,” she said, sitting down at the roulette table. “Everything in place on your end, Drea?”

“All set,” she said, walking closer to Matt.

Ren could see Margaret near the craps table; Donny was still holding down the bar. “All right,” she said. “Let’s play.”

And for the next hour that’s just what they did, Ren staying only slightly behind the house, Margaret taking a couple of passes at the craps table, and Drea wandering around to wherever the action was. Matt was painstakingly teaching Gemma how to play blackjack, and she’d accumulated quite a nice little pile of chips. She was flirting in that outrageous way people do when they know it won’t ultimately mean anything—girls like her might want to bid on hot professors, but they didn’t stay with them. Matt was flirting back, a bit awkwardly, but that was okay; that went with the cover. He draped his arm across the back of her chair; nothing untoward, more escort-friendly than wolf-aggressive.

“That’s our cue. Drea, get in place.”

Drea had been near the baccarat table, but made her way closer to Matt. “On it,” she said.

“On my mark,” Ren said, pulling her phone out of her bag as she watched Drea move to the blackjack table. “Three—two—one—” and when she swiped the app that Matt had installed, all the lights in the room went out.

A shout went up, and Ren could sense the tension in the room.

“Everyone please stay calm and in your seats,” someone announced. “The lights will be back on shortly.”

There was a murmur of conversation while they waited, but as there was no real money at stake there wasn’t the chaos one might expect in, say, a proper Vegas casino. And in almost exactly two minutes from when Ren had flicked the switch, the room was bathed in bright light once again.

The crowd applauded and everyone was laughing to get rid of their nerves when suddenly Gemma jumped up from her chair. “My necklace!” she said. “It’s gone!”

Donny got up from his perch at the bar. “Search that man!” he said, pointing to Matt. “We don’t know him from holy hell.”

A tall dark-haired woman standing in the door in a smart black suit held up one hand. “Everyone, my name is Lt. Gail Rogers of the Houston PD, and I’m the head of security for this event,” she said, and Ren recognized her voice as the one that had made the earlier announcement. “Again, if everyone can stay in their seats and remain calm and cooperative I’m sure we can settle this manner quickly and return to our lovely evening.”

Four men had appeared behind her, and she indicated that one of them go to Matt, who was all innocence.

“I’m just a math professor,” he said, holding up his hands. “Search all you want. As long as he agrees to be searched, too.”

Donny scowled, and opened his mouth to protest, but Gemma spoke first.

“Please, darling?” she asked, and Ren was impressed at how well Matt had been able to place just enough doubt in Gemma’s mind about Donny.

“For you, anything, of course,” Donny replied, and another of the security staff made his way over to the bar.

Matt, meanwhile, had shed his jacket and emptied his pockets, and was getting a pat down. “He’s clean,” the guard announced, and of course he was.

“Hey, boss,” said the other guard, and now all eyes were on Donny … and the emerald necklace the guard had in his hands.

“Where was that?” Lt. Rogers asked.

“Jacket pocket,” he answered.

“Clearly a plant!” Donny said. “I was at the bar, well across the room—”

“The lights were out for a good two minutes,” Lt. Rogers pointed out. “Plenty long enough to slip across the room and back.” She looked at the necklace. “And this is a fake. You wore the real one tonight, Miss Hays?”

Gemma nodded. There were tears in her eyes, but hey, Ren wasn’t the one who put them there. “Maybe you should talk to his ex-wife,” she asked in a shaky, low voice.

“My what?” Donny asked. “Gemma, don’t be ridiculous; I’m not in cahoots with—”

“Margaret Anderson. I saw her name on the guest list, but I thought it would be immature to take her off.” Gemma said. Matt took her hand, and she grasped it, smiling at him a little. “She’s the middle-aged blonde sitting near the craps table.” Gemma pointed to Margaret without looking.

Lt. Rogers approached her and Margaret handed over her bag. “Always happy to cooperate, Lieutenant,” she said, smiling.

Ren couldn’t breathe, not until Lt. Rogers had reached in and pulled the necklace out of the gaudy little gold purse. The look of shock and rage on Margaret’s face was priceless, and she glared at Ren, knowing that she couldn’t finger Ren’s crew without implicating herself even further.

“Well, this looks like the real thing,” Lt. Rogers said. “Not sure how you two failed to make the switch; you certainly had time. Looks like your ex-husband let you down, Ms. Anderson.”

“I’m not saying anything more,” Margaret said, crossing her arms.

“That’s no surprise,” Lt. Rogers said. “All right, let’s bring these two downstairs and hold them until we get back into port. Sorry to cut everyone’s night short! Ms. Hays, we’ll need you to come make a statement.”

“Of course,” Gemma said. She turned to Matt and shook his hand, smiling, and then kissed him on the cheek. He watched her walk away, looking a bit dazed.

“Rendezvous in ten,” Ren said, sounding snappish even to herself. “Drea, is the boat in position?”

“You bet,” she said.

“Good. I’d like to get out of here before the cops arrive. Matt, you with us?”

He nodded, then grabbed his jacket and walked out of the room without looking back or turning his mike back on.

Drea had hidden a small motorboat among the lower lifeboats in case they needed a quick getaway—being their driver, she’d been nervous about the floating casino venue from the start—but now they made a slow and deliberate one, carefully easing away from the cruise ship without lights and with just enough power to push them out of the wake of the larger ship. They changed out of their evening wear into casual clothes they’d stashed in the boat, packing their gear back into backpacks, so as they came ashore they’d just look like nice people out for an evening boat ride.

Ren was very carefully not looking in Matt’s direction, not that she could see much in the dim light. They were silent as Drea drove them back into the harbor, not wanting to jinx the job by celebrating too early. Drea pulled them into a slip in Galveston, and once they were safely in the car and on their way to the airport in Houston, Drea spoke.

“So Matt, how did it feel to be the face?” Drea asked.

Matt, who was sitting in the back, shrugged. “She made it easy,” he said. “Gemma’s a nice girl, really. A little used to having things go her way, but not as full of herself as I thought she would be.”

Ren turned in her seat. “You did well, giving her doubts about Donny,” she said.

“She already had them,” he replied. “I just told her they were valid—which they were. But … thanks, Ren.”

Ren nodded and faced forward again, clenching her hands into fists because seriously, she was not falling for her tech guy just because he proved himself to look good in a tuxedo and be able to manipulate young socialites. She wasn’t sure what it said about her that she found the latter sexier than the former, except that she was her father’s daughter, but she already knew that. It would be a disaster; they’d be no better than Margaret and Donny. Or her own parents, the exceptions that proved the rule.

Ren spent the flight to New York reading a spy novel and trying to not to think about Matt. She was unsuccessful.

***

Being back in the city helped to normalize things. Matt didn’t wear tuxedos in the back of a bar in Brooklyn. He wore glasses and jeans and a tshirt with a joke from some geek webcomic and his hair was a mess. He still couldn’t play pool and he still couldn’t charm his way into a free beer from Drea’s aunt when she tended bar. The Matt that had stepped up and did what needed to be done in Houston was receding into the background, though Ren wasn’t an idiot and was taking Matt’s newly discovered skills into consideration as she sat looking through the paper and planning their next job.

But of course this couldn’t last, and less than a week later Ren was pulled out of her research by another wolf-whistle.

She looked up to see Gemma Hays pausing in the door of Joey’s bar, before making a beeline to the pool table where Drea was giving Matt his latest lesson.

“I take it your name isn’t Marc,” she said.

Matt cocked his head. “How did you—”

“Connections,” Gemma replied. “It’s amazing what people will tell you when you give them an incentive. What about the PhD?”

“No, that’s real,” he said. “Just not the faculty position, obviously.”

She leaned against the table and crossed her legs. “How did you do it?” she asked. “Or really, why did you do it?”

Matt turned to Ren and raised an eyebrow.

Ren got up and walked to the table. “We did it because they were double-crossing us,” Ren said, “and I don’t like being disrespected. They were arrested?”

“Yes but not charged,” Gemma said. “Circumstantial; their lawyers had it all thrown out. Not that I would have pressed charges anyway.”

“No?”

“I just needed him out of my life,” she said, shrugging, and turned to Matt. “Thanks for the warning.”

“Sure,” he said.

“You never told me the how,” Gemma said, edging a little closer to him.

He looked to Ren again, and he was blushing. Maybe he could only pull off the suave business when he had on a tux.

“I slipped the copy into Donny’s pocket while I had a drink with him,” Ren said.

“You know Donny?” Gemma asked, though she was still looking at Matt.

“He’s a friend of the family. And he,” Ren continued, pointing at Matt, “took your necklace and passed it to our friend, who planted it on Margaret, all while the lights were out.”

“What a clever plan,” Gemma said, grasping Matt’s cue just above his hand.

“Yeah,” he said, “um, that’s why she’s the leader.” He smiled nervously.

“Is she?” Gemma asked. “Well, if you’re such a good follower, you could follow me back to Houston. We could have a good time and you wouldn’t have to steal necklaces anymore.”

Matt pulled away slightly. “You understand that this is how you got in trouble with Donny in the first place, right? You told me your life is boring? So go make it interesting. But trying to find inappropriate men to do that for you—”

“You call yourself inappropriate?” she asked. “You have a PhD in physics!”

“You met me under false pretenses,” Matt said. “You don’t even know my real name.”

“You could tell it to me,” she cooed.

“Gemma, I stole a necklace from around your neck four days ago. I’m a thief, a good one, and I’m getting better thanks to her,” he said, pointing to Ren. “And I like this life. I like this life just fine.”

Gemma scowled. “Really?” she asked. “That’s the choice you’re making?”

“Might be good for you not to get everything you want,” he said. “Call it a growth experience.”

She stepped back. “I thought you liked me.”

“I do,” he replied. “You’re a nice girl, really, but I’m not a nice boy. Go find a good man—or better yet, no man at all, for a while.”

“Fine. Maybe I will.” She turned to Ren, eyes flashing. “You can have him.”

“Thanks,” Ren replied, and they all watched Gemma walk out.

“Well,” Drea said. “That happened.”

“Yeah,” Matt said, his head cocked, still looking out the door.

Ren tapped her fingers against the pool table. “But why did you tell her you’re not nice?” she asked.

“Are you kidding me right now?” he asked. “I got a makeover from Drea to get your attention and you’re asking me that?”

“You—really?”

“I’ve been waiting for you to ask me out for months!”

“Why didn’t you just ask me?”

“Because I suck at stuff like that and you know it. Anyway, I figured you’d like it better if you did the asking.”

“Oh.” Out of the corner of her eye she could see Drea trying not to laugh. “Would you like to go to dinner with me tonight?”

“Very much,” he replied, grinning.

“All right then,” she said, going back to her table and gathering her things. “I’ll pick you up at eight.”

“I’ll be ready.”

“Drea? Casual dressy.”

Drea did laugh then. “I’ll take care of it, Ren.”

***

Two weeks later…

Matt had roused himself from the warm bed to get coffee and bagels, mostly because he was a better real boyfriend than a pretend charmer, but also because when Ren went out she never got the order right. He didn’t tell her that, of course; he’d learned early in their working relationship that she was the kind of big-picture person who could be distracted by extraneous details. The job in Houston had come awfully close to disaster but they’d pulled it out because Drea and Matt were looking after the details. Which was fine, really; everyone had their roles to play.

When he came back to the apartment, Ren was still in bed, still unclothed, reading the newspaper he’d brought in from her doorstep as he ran out. He often teased her about reading the actual paper rather than poking around online, but it was a nice routine, their morning rituals. Besides, she looked good sitting there naked and half uncovered, frowning a little as she searched for the kernel of inspiration for their next job.

“Got your mail,” he said, tossing it next to her. He set the bag down on the nightstand, then shed his own clothes quickly and climbed back into bed with her.

She was looking at a plain white postcard.

“Who still sends snail mail?” he asked.

“People in prison,” she replied, and began to read aloud:

Heard about Houston. Good girl. Don’t let anybody con you, especially any so-called pals of mine. Ten of ‘em together couldn’t hold a candle to you, and don’t you forget it.

Say, have you done anything about that math whiz you brought with you last time you visited? He was mooning over you the entire time. Seemed like a good kid.

Go see your mother. You know how she worries.

Love, Pop

Matt felt a little glow of pride that Tom, who was infamous, approved of him. But to admit that would have been hopelessly mushy, so instead he said, “I wasn’t mooning.”

Ren laughed. “Well, since I didn’t notice, let’s agree that you weren’t.”

He smiled, then kissed her. “Hey, you brushed your teeth.”

“So did you.”

“Bagels can wait?” he asked.

She pushed the newspaper and mail off the bed. “Yeah, bagels can wait,” she said, and pulled him down under the covers with her.