Chapter Four: One on One

"Check!" Marco launched the ball straight at the other guy's gut. But instead of passing it back, the skinny kid standing under the basketball hoop just stared at him.

"You want to play or not? Why in the fungool . . ." Marco's question was interrupted by female laughter and a soft voice.

"I'll take you on, big shot. Tyrone, why don't you and your two friends grab a couple of sodas from the break room? Tell the lady it's on me."

"Mother of God, you have got to be kidding me!" Marco's aggravation was just part of the act, part of the defensive shield he always built up against an opponent. Still, when he turned around to face the unexpected challenger there was a sharp stab in his gut that had nothing to do with anger.

Mary McCloud was smiling at him, wearing skimpy white shorts and dark green top that accented her emerald eyes. Her looks were pure princess, sweet, golden and innocent. But those green eyes struck sparks. Her invitation to play wasn't just part of the mating dance. It was a real challenge.

Marco didn't really like basketball. His game was football. When Mary slipped by him to score the first basket, he realized that he'd been set up. The rich girl wasn't just good. She was very good.

Of course, Marco had learned his basketball on the street, not in some fancy girls' academy. And there were ways of getting around all that grace and skill. But no matter how he crowded her, Mary kept coming back at him. It was like she was daring him to trip her up. He could use his shoulder to knock her down, or even put an elbow into her solar plexus.

Instead he began to back off. Not a lot, not enough to make it obvious. Just enough so it would stay a friendly game, and not turn into something raw and ugly.

"Nice game," he grunted, after Mary sank a perfect lay-up. Marco was panting, drenched in sweat. Mary was glowing.

"Buy you a drink, Maselli?" The rich girl's grin was infectious. "You didn't have to let me win, you know. I could have taken you even if you gave a hundred percent."

"Well, I guess we'll never know." Marco couldn't help giving her a smile in return. He'd given up trying hard years ago. But something about Mary tempted him to give his very best.

"You know," she told him, when they were relaxing on the terrace of a fancy rib joint overlooking the river, "I think there's something funny about this whole Gascony Farms business. Elizabeth seems desperate for us to cut all ties. Why break with people we've always used?"

"People change," Marco shrugged. "Businesses fail."

"But you don't just turn your back," Mary protested. "You don't just give up on people." She looked at him. "Do you?"

Again he felt that jab in his gut. Rich girls were supposed to be spoiled, stuck up. They weren't supposed to be fearless, unselfish. They weren't supposed to look at you like the long-dead goodness inside of you was all that mattered.

They were supposed to be all wrapped up in themselves.

"You were right about me," Marco finally said. "I'm still a crook, and I'm still connected to a lot of bad people. If you trust me, I can help you find out what's going on up at Gascony Farms. Why they're being pushed out of business."

"Ah," Mary said. There was a gleam in her eyes now, a knowing gleam, like she'd seen him giving in to her all along. "And what will it cost me?"

"I'm an old-fashioned Italian male," Marco said, looking right at her. "I don't like taking orders from a woman, and I don't like losing to a woman. So I'll help you out, but it'll cost you a rematch. Only next time we play my game, by my rules."

"Oh! Yes, I think we can arrange that." Mary tried to sound superior, and very knowing. But her cheeks were bright pink.