The wrought iron gate looked like it dated to medieval times, but it swung open smoothly, without even a hint of a creak. When it was wide enough to admit an F-350, Lexi Crane put her big blue-on-blue dually pickup into gear and idled onto the grounds of the sprawling Packard estate. The speaker-box behind her squawked, trying to give her directions to the house. She figured she’d find it herself. April was pleasant on Staten Island, and the carefully groomed woods on either side of the road smelled wonderful; the knowledge of the bouquet of diesel the truck was no doubt leaving behind it only improved things. Not that Lexi wanted to stink up the flowers, of course. She just liked the smell of diesel.
The house made Lexi think of a Victorian Star Destroyer, but bigger. She couldn’t imagine Ren growing up here, though for the most part he had. He was on the porch, talking to his mother, and he still didn’t belong. They didn’t even look particularly alike. Ren and his mother shared the same piercing green eyes and sandy blond hair, but her face was sharp (probably in part through surgery) and elegantly avian where Ren had a great deal more nerdy Brit in his jaw and nose thanks to his father’s side of the family.
His back was to the driveway, and Becka flicked her chin at the truck as it pulled up, as if he hadn’t heard it. The gesture dripped disapproval, as always. Lexi resisted the urge to lay on the horn. She’d have been justified in doing so; Becka had sent a car for Ren, knowing that he had to be back by six and promising he would be in the city by five-thirty. Ren had given Lexi a look that said he knew full well how long it took to get from Staten Island to downtown, and if he wasn’t back by 5:17 she should come looking for him. They had a reception to attend, and technically they were hosting it. It was very much like Becka to attempt to quietly sabotage things this way. There’d be an excuse of course, and something that sounded like an apology.
Ren rushed down the steps and joined Lexi in the truck. As he slid in he reached out and touched her hand on the gearshift, and the gesture carried more love and affection than any kiss could have. The touch seemed to replenish some invisible, indispensable element that the house and his mother had sucked out of him. Lexi could practically hear Becka’s angry twitch.
Resisting the urge to slam the dually into first and plow through the exotic flowers lining the drive (and oh, the image of Becka being sprayed with dirt and petal shreds kicked up by the dual rear wheels was a fetching one indeed), she swung around the circular driveway and headed back for the gate. “What happened to the driver who was supposed to get you back by five-thirty?” she asked.
“Conveniently sent home early,” Ren said tightly, adjusting his glasses. “Glad you got dressed already.” Lexi looked out of place in the truck’s workmanlike interior; she wore green satin and had her hair up. Her earrings were tiny MG badges, her pumps in the footwell so she could drive. She’d dressed up in exchange for his accepting Becka’s invite. “Pretty,” he said of her dress.
“It matches your eyes. It’s Molly’s fault.”
“What time do we have to be at the Rainbow Room?” Ren asked.
“Shit.” It was five-forty and they still had the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and most of Lower Manhattan to cross. The social gathering that inevitably followed a press conference was a necessary evil, as was the brief welcome speech he’d have to make. Rushing in the door after most of the guests had arrived was not the way he wanted to do this. Lexi understood without having to ask, and she was already surfing the big Ford fearlessly through traffic in fourth gear. “Why didn’t you drive Darkside?” he asked, wishing for the confident push of his hot-rodded Mercury’s five hundred horsepower under the hood instead of the big diesel pickup’s more relaxed pace.
“One, because I hate him; he’s your car and he doesn’t like me. Two, because there’s more room to change in here.” Lexi hooked a thumb at the pickup’s back seat, where Ren’s tuxedo was hanging. “Three, the truck scares taxis.”
“You’re too cool,” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt. “And I was right, there was no point in going to see her.”
Lexi rolled her eyes. “Yes, there was. She’s your mother.”
“I hate it when you say that,” he muttered half-seriously. He flopped into the back seat.
“I can’t pretend to like anyone who thinks they’re as important as she does, Ren, but she’s still your mother and you’ll miss her when she’s gone.”
“And the seas will boil and the moon will be as blood, right. She threatened to disinherit me if I married you, you know,” he said, pulling his shirt over his head. There was no need to be shy; the truck’s windows were darkly tinted. “That’s what was so important it couldn’t wait. I think she forgot that she already did it when we first started going out. I really thought she meant it that time, too.”
“Marry me? You haven’t even asked yet.”
“I know. Did I need to?”
Lexi shrugged with a look of content pleasure. “Not really. When?”
She swerved to cut through a gap in traffic, and he slipped off of the seat with a yelp. “Sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. I’m glad you came. I couldn’t have taken much more of it.” Ren lay down to get his pants on. “From the radio it sounds reaction to the launch was good.”
Lexi nodded, her eyes on the road. “One of the hits of the ’96 New York Auto Show, I believe the official line goes. Not bad for the new kid on the block.”
“The new kid can kick a Corvette’s ass,” he amended. “Dammit!” he said, suddenly annoyed again. “Why did she have to drag me away from that? I can’t believe I rushed away right after my own press conference.”
“That’s what wicked mothers do,” Lexi said matter-of-factly. “But I’ve said too much. Let’s don’t talk about Becka any more today. And the buzz is very good. Everyone liked your presentation, and my trick with the cat. Ron says that all twenty-four cars are sold and he expects more deposits. We’re popular.”
Ren was stunned. “The daydream is alive,” he said.
She grinned, watching him fuss with his tie in the mirror. “I’m bored of rubbing noses with Important People, Ren,” Lexi said. “And I hate wearing heels.” They were getting close, weaving up the East Side Highway and using the F-350’s bulk to muscle smaller cars (and trucks) out of the way.
Ren was dressed, but he stayed in the back seat. He gave the back of her neck a stroke. Lexi purred, felt a thrill race up across the top of her scalp, split and dive straight into each nipple. From there it kept going, down across her belly, curling through her lower abdomen and fetching up in the inner thighs. The sensation was there and gone in half a second. She never got used to it, the way he could touch her and set off that chain reaction, and never wanted to.
She trilled in pleasure, a sound that couldn’t possibly contain half of what it needed to convey, but Ren understood. Lexi said, “I’m burned out on socializing. For the month.”
“Hang with me for a couple more hours?”
“Absolutely. Get me a bowl of green grapes and I’ll be fine, I’ll meet and greet all evening. Can we have a quickie in the broom closet?”
“Later, honey, we’ll talk business later,” Ren said, channeling Sam Spade. She grinned at him. They pulled up to the curb behind a gleaming red Bentley, just as a valet parker whisked the car away. The two men who’d gotten out of it were on their way in, both dressed for the black tie affair. “That’s Dobie Cassarell,” Ren said. “I want to catch up with him.”
“Go ahead, I’ll meet you.” Lexi shifted into neutral and stood on the foot-activated parking brake. She heard Ren’s door open and close as a parker in a red jacket came to her window.
“Help you?” he asked.
“We’re parking for the Rainbow Room.”
“This truck won’t fit in the garage.”
She rolled her eyes and opened the door so she could put her shoes on. “That’s a quandary, isn’t it?”