Cheating at Solitaire (Cheating at Solitaire #1)


But Jason had come for Nina", and Julia knew firsthand that he wouldn’t easily leave without her.

"Nina, honey, I worry about you," Jason said. He reached for her hand and began massaging her small fingers. "We’re no good without each other. It’s always been you and me. Forever, remember? What do you say? Come on, let’s go talk about this."

Julia’s heart lodged in her throat as she saw her best friend teeter on the brink of what could possibly be the most important decision of her life. Down one path was a fictional night at the movies with her ex-husband. Down the other lay a night of burglary with her best friend. No matter which way Nina turned, danger and adventure waited.

Nina pulled her fingers from Jason’s grasp, and Julia began to breathe again.

"Whatever you have to say to me, you can say here, in front of my friends, or you can say it to my lawyer." Nina wiped her eyes. "It’s your choice."

"But, Tiny …" Jason started.

"Don’t call her that!" Julia roared and stepped closer.

"Get away from me, bitch." Jason sneered, shoving Julia into the wall. She crashed and felt her elbow bang sharply, as Lance stepped between Jason and Nina, expertly sliding her out of harm’s way.

He sounded calm when he said, "Looks like he’s chosen the lawyer route, Nina." Lance placed one hand on Jason’s shoulder, a friendly gesture with decidedly unfriendly implications. His voice was low and steady as he spoke near Jason’s ear: "Nina doesn’t want to talk to you. She doesn’t want to see you. And even more than that, I don’t want to see you. If you come near any of these women again, I’ll hear about it. Do you understand me?" When Jason didn’t reply, Lance shook him gently, as if trying to wake a sleeping child. "I asked if you understood."

"Yes." Jason grimaced.

"Okay. Now, remember, if you want to give me a go, all you have to do is say one word to any of these women, and we’ll see who the tough guy really is."

Caroline already had the door open, so Lance gave Jason a small shove, and Jason stumbled onto the porch. He didn’t have time to say anything, much less comprehend what had just happened, before Caroline closed the door and flipped the lock.

Lance turned and asked Nina, "You okay?" When she nodded, he turned his attention to Julia. "What about you?"

Julia’s elbow was tender and it hurt. She looked at the closed door that Jason was locked behind and thought for one terrifying second what might have happened if Lance hadn’t been there.

"Julia," Lance asked, snapping her back to the moment. "Are you okay?"

She nodded, and Lance said, "Good." Then he turned away and began climbing the stairs, wrapped in a cloak of quiet confidence. He hadn’t yelled his warning, he’d whispered it, and Julia knew the sound of his voice would be reverberating in Jason’s ears for years.

So men like that really do exist. So that’s what all the fuss is about.

At one fifteen they synchronized their watches. Julia didn’t know exactly why, but it still felt like the thing to do. Then Julia, Nina, and Lance checked the batteries in their flashlights one last time and said good-bye to Caroline, who was already holding a sleeping Nicholas.

As they prepared to go, Julia watched Lance from the corner of her eye. If things went wrong, the consequences would be worst for him—he was a strong, able-bodied man breaking into the home of an elderly woman. She and Nina posed a far lesser physical threat. Plus, they could always plead insanity and, judging from their recent and extended history, most juries would buy it.

Nina had gone downstairs first, following Caroline’s instructions to test the walkie-talkie on the far side of the lawn to best gauge its range and volume, so Julia and Lance were alone as they left the playroom. When they reached the first-floor landing, Julia took his arm and said, "Can I talk to you for a second?"

He looked a little surprised by her timing, but stopped and said, "Okay."

"What you did for Nina—it’s going to change her life. I just want to thank you and tell you that I appreciate it."

A wry smile stretched across his face as if he’d just cracked her code. Julia had never felt so naked with her clothes on. "What?" she muttered.

"That was hard for you, wasn’t it?"

"No, of course not. I’m a gracious person."

"I know," he said. "You’re a thanker."

She didn’t know what he meant by that, but it didn’t sound like an insult, so she let it slide. "Anyway, I want you to know that I appreciate all that you’ve done, and that as far as I’m concerned, we’re even. You don’t have to do this. It should be easy enough, and it shouldn’t take three of—"

"You’re right," he cut her off. "You stay here."

"Wait!" She grabbed him. "I mean you should stay. It’s my problem. I’ll fix it."

"We’ve already spent one night in jail together, Julia. I don’t see why we should go for two."

An all-too-realistic vision flashed in Julia’s mind—fifteen years on a hard bench with thumbtacks poking into her skull.

Only his grin could snap her back into the moment. He leaned close and said, "Breathe."

"Lance, what I’m trying to say is that it’s okay. I can handle this one. You don’t need to take the risk."

"Julia, I get the risks—believe me. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t be going over there at all. So you can wait here while I go get your manuscript, or you can come with me. Personally, I’d prefer it if you and Nina would stay put."

"Out of the question."

"Then after you." He made a show of stepping back and sweeping his arms toward the patio doors.

Chapter Twenty One

WAY #96: Don’t be afraid of uncharted territory.

Take a good look at your life and see if there’s anything you’ve always wanted to do or try but have so far been too scared to pursue. Throw away the maps if that’s what it takes, but don’t be afraid of venturing where you’ve never gone before.

—from 101 Ways to Cheat at Solitaire

( ? ) here’s a full moon over Tulsa hope that it’s shining on you, David Frizzell sang inside Julia’s mind as she stood on Caroline’s patio and stared into the face of the largest full moon she’d ever seen. So much for the cover of darkness. It shone a spotlight on everything—sandboxes, Big Wheels, and the half-finished fence that marked the point of no return beyond Caroline’s backyard.

Nina emerged from the shadows of the patio, and the three of them surveyed the scene like a battlefield, their eyes scanning for snipers or land mines or worse, Cassie’s Bubble Fun Push Mower, which lit up and played music anytime you touched it.

Then, as if moved by the hand of God, a dense cloud swept across the night sky, blotting out the moon. The three of them bolted, like lightning, for the fence. They stood side-by-side with their backs flat against the completed section, breathing hard. Julia fought the feeling that they were practicing for a police lineup. Beside her, she heard Lance’s steady breathing and felt his arm press against hers.

"Last chance to turn back," she said, more for his benefit ban Nina’s, but Lance was already gone, ducking quickly and silently around the end of the fence. All she and Nina could do was follow.

Darting across Myrtle’s backyard, Julia’s heart was pounding. Am I this out of shape? she wondered, feeling as though she were trying to breathe water. She’d never been so grateful to see a wall in her life as when they reached the house and dropped to their knees next to Lance, who was already crouched beneath the unlocked window. She heard the walkie-talkie crackle, and it sounded like a freight train in the silence.

"Windows are black," Caroline said. "We are a go."

When this is over, Julia decided, I’m sending Caroline on a very long, very exotic vacation.

She leaned against the cranberry-colored brick that covered every wall in the development. The window above her was double-paned and double-hung, but luckily, it didn’t have a screen. Lance looked at Nina then locked eyes with Julia, an unspoken "get out of here" passing between them. But Julia nodded toward the glass, and his gaze changed to "here goes nothing." He applied gentle pressure to the window, and it eased silently up. Beside her, Julia could feel Nina gloating. Lance turned to Nina, who tucked the walkie-talkie into the zipper pocket of her black fleece pullover. He leaned over and cupped his hands, and she gave him her right foot as if they’d practiced the maneuver a hundred times before. Her hands went to Lance’s shoulders. With no more breath than a whisper, he said, "One, two …" On three, he lifted until her head, shoulders, and waist disappeared into the darkened window, and Nina shimmied the rest of the way inside.

Julia listened for a crash. In movies, there’s always some kind of shatter as the person going through the window lands on a stray pot or sleeping cat. Nothing. The silence seemed imminently worse. Julia couldn’t help herself—she leaned into the window and whispered, "Nina!" but Lance clamped his hand over her mouth before she could make another sound. She tasted the rubber of his latex gloves and felt his warm breath on the back of her neck as he whispered, "Wait."

Her eyes stayed glued to the black, empty expanse of the kitchen and keeping room. Where was Nina? Fear boiled inside Julia. She strained to see something inside the darkened house. She was about to fight free of Lance’s grip and call out for her best friend again, when Lance turned her to face the backyard, where Nina stood on the dewy grass, hands on hips, a "what are you waiting for?" expression on her pinched face.

Lance took Julia’s hand and led her around the corner of the house. They’d gone patio door to patio door in less than two minutes. The Italian Job people didn’t have anything on them.

As they stepped into the keeping room, Julia knew for certain that Myrtle wasn’t playing with a full deck. The mess that filled the room went far beyond sloth. Julia looked at the mountains of junk on every free surface and became impressed that Nina had made it silently through the obstacle course that lay between the keeping room and the patio doors. Old newspapers were stacked everywhere, each pile two or three feet tall. Julia did some quick calculations and remembered that Caroline and Steve had moved in at the end of the summer, roughly eight months before. Myrtle had moved in at about the same time, and Julia guessed from looking at the piles of papers that the woman hadn’t thrown a single one away during all that time. The sight of all the newspapers made Julia cringe with the thought of how difficult it might be to find the manuscript if it was anywhere other than in its box, and if the box was somewhere other than the garage.

She felt a tug on her sleeve and turned to see Lance wordlessly urging her forward. Nina was already trotting into the kitchen, dodging unopened bags of flour and cases of canned food. She moved as though the bulk groceries were laser beams, using the swift, precise motions of someone who’s watched way too many episodes of Alias.

Better make it an exotic vacation for two, Julia decided, realizing that both Nina and Caroline needed to find a legal outlet for their energy.

Lance and Julia followed Nina’s lead, with far less precision, When the three of them reached the door that led to the garage, | Lance placed his hand on the knob, and Julia felt him silently  count to three. Then he opened the door, and they all piled in,  with perfect SWAT team precision. Well, almost perfect. I Lance collided with a bicycle. Nina knocked a rake, a hoe, and a snow shovel off a rack. Julia stubbed her toe and turns’ bled onto the hood of Myrtle’s Cadillac. For a minute, they were all as quiet as church mice, looking at each other through  the diluted glow of Lance’s flashlight.