Tuesday, 2:17 p.m.
Samantha Jellicoe liked New York City. Hell, she loved it, just like the song said. Her verses would go a little differently than Sinatra’s, though. She would croon about how the wealthy citizens lived in basic insecurity amid the huddled masses, how all the cars were taxis and handily all looked the same for timely escapes, and how everyone had so much of their own crap going on that they couldn’t be bothered to notice anyone else’s.
And for people like her, who made their livelihood by slipping in and out of places while not being noticed, that made it very close to heaven.
Or she used to make her living by slipping through the shadows and snatching up other peoples’ very expensive belongings. Not any longer, though. She was now retired from that business. R-E-T-I-R-E-D. Retired. Which didn’t explain why she was currently standing on the doorstep of one of the influential elite. No, she hadn’t entirely retired. Now she was being legit. She had a day job. Yay, her.
With a slight, professionally-considered tilt of her head, she smiled and shook the hand of Mr. Boyden Locke. "Glad I could be of help, Boyden," she said, "and thank you for the coffee."
He held onto her hand for a moment too long, undoubtedly his way of letting her know that he was interested in more than her advice. As if she couldn’t have told that from the way he’d chatted with her boobs for the past forty minutes. Mr. Locke probably had no idea what color her eyes were.
"No, thank you," he returned. "In my position, it’s impossible to be too cautious. I know the house is badly in need of a security upgrade, but I wanted to make sure I found the right person to handle the job."
Somehow he made the commentary seem vaguely obscene, but Samantha smiled anyway. She had more than a hunch that her being the right person for the job had more to do with the man with whom she was currently living than with her credentials. But if being associated with Rick Addison brought her business, then so be it. "I’ll write up my recommendations and get them over to you."
"And I’ll have my people look them over. And you’re welcome to come by for coffee any time."
Samantha forced her lips to curve further. "I’ll keep that in mind. You should have my invoice in the next week or so."
She retrieved her hand and sidled out his door. Once in the clear, Samantha dug into her purse for a tin of Altoids mints. "Coffee. Blech," she muttered, popping a pair of the wintergreen flavored tabs into her mouth.
Apparently she’d do anything in the name of expanding her business, if she had lowered herself to drinking – okay, barely sipping – coffee. At the corner she turned around and surveyed Locke’s house again. Old, elegant, and definitely located in the correct area, she could see why he’d called to meet with her about his security situation practically the second her flight had landed at La Guardia. A few years ago she’d hit the house three doors down from him. The Monet inside had netted her a quarter million, and Locke had two paintings each worth more than that one just in his drawing room.
His security system was pretty standard, alarms on the doors and windows and sensors on the artwork. For a moment she was tempted to break in through the back door just to show Boyden Locke how much he really did need her services. She could get out of the house with his Picasso before he had time to pour himself another cup of coffee. With her luck, he’d probably think she was coming onto him, though.
The phone in her purse rang, interrupting her reverie over the semi-good old days. At the familiar sound of the James Bond theme, she grinned. "Hey, stud muffin," she said, with her free hand waving down a taxi.
"Your meeting went well, then," a cool masculine voice replied in a slightly faded British accent.
"You could tell that from three words?"
"Yes. Good is those three words. Bad is five words."
She chuckled, stepping forward as a yellow cab stopped at the curb. Pulling open the door, she slid in. "Madison and Sixtieth," she said, shutting the door. "Which five words?"
"Usually it’s ‘get off my back, bub,’ as I recall."
"Yeah, but that’s not always about business."
He gave an unaccustomed snort. "Samantha Jellicoe, I dare you to come over here and say that to me."
Her mouth went dry. All he had to do was hint about sex, apparently, and she practically had an orgasm. "Randy much?" she joked.
"You have no idea. I actually called, though, to see whether we were still on for dinner tonight."
"I wouldn’t want to wreck your surprise."
"I do appreciate that. You’re going shopping?"
Samantha resisted the urge to check the cab for hidden cameras. "Which word gave that away?"
"Madison Avenue, darling. Buy something sexy. And red."
"I wouldn’t have to keep buying red if you would stop wrecking them. And, I have to say, that wardrobe would hardly be appropriate for Pauly’s Pizza."
"I am not wearing a tuxedo to Pauly’s Pizza. We’re not even going to Pauly’s Pizza."
"Since you won’t tell me where we are going, then, I’ll see you tonight," she said, and clicked the phone closed.
The taxi stopped and she stepped out onto Madison Avenue before she realized that she’d forgotten to ask Rick how his meeting was going. "Shit," she muttered, reaching for her phone again. She dialed his cell.
"Addison," his voice came, cool and professional.
Oops. "You’re back in your meeting, aren’t you?" she asked, swearing at herself. Of course he would have called her at his only spare moment.
"Sorry. I just wanted to find out how it was going. How about saying ‘merger’ for great, and ‘stock options’ for fucked?"
For a moment the line was silent. "Merger," he finally said, humor lacing his deep voice.
"Good. I’ll see you tonight."
"Certainly. We’ll talking about our stock optioning then."
This time he hung up first. She was getting a little better at the couples thing, anyway, though after five months of living with Rick Addison she probably shouldn’t have to remind herself that when he called her, he would be interrupting his own business to ask about hers. Well, there was one way to make up for her slip. "Sexy and red," she murmured, walking up the street and heading into Valentino’s.
Two hours later she stood in an alley behind an elegant Manhattan townhouse, her shoes and a very slinky red dress tucked up into a ball beneath her tasteful yellow blouse.
Hm. Four o’clock in the afternoon trying to get into a house that opened onto Central Park wasn’t exactly something for a rookie, but then she hadn’t been a rookie since she’d turned seven and her father Martin Jellicoe had started taking her out for pick-pocketing excursions to the park in whichever city they happened to be.
The butler and two maids and the chef were inside the house, but she had learned their schedule over the last couple of days. At the moment Dr. Phil was on, and they’d be in the kitchen, watching. As for the townhouse’s owner, he was in his Manhattan office a mile away, meeting about buying something or other. With a slight smile she pulled the pair of leather gloves she always carried out of her purse, slung the handbag across her neck and under one shoulder and Spider-manned her way up the old, rough brick wall to the fire escape. Breaking into Locke’s house might be out of the question, but sometimes an itch just needed to be scratched. And she was fairly humming with bored frustration.
Hiking herself over the railing, Samantha trotted up the metal stairs to the third floor. The window at the end of the hallway was shut and locked, of course. Because it was off the fire escape, it was alarmed, as well. The trick, then, was to keep the circuit from being broken. Pulling a metal nail file from her purse, she dug out the silicon seal from around the bottom center panel of glass in the window.
Before she loosened the last bit she took the small roll of duct tape she always carried and wrapped a length of tape backwards around her hand. Laying her gloved palm flat on the glass she made sure she had a good contact, and then gouged out the last bit of sealing with her free hand. The glass panel came free, attached to her glove palm by the tape. She set it aside, picked up the nail file again, and reached inside the window. Pushing the file in under the frame, she secured it with another piece of tape, then leaned up and in to unlatch the window. Two seconds later she was inside the house.
Samantha took a moment to frown. That had been far too easy. Somebody was definitely due for a security upgrade.
Easy or not, the adrenaline surge took a little of the edge off of nerves that had spent the past two days being polite to people who kept snapping her picture and staring at her chest. Humming to herself, she pulled off her gloves and strolled to the upstairs office to help herself to a Diet Coke from the fridge inside. Halfway through the door, though, she stopped dead.
A dozen men and women in typical high-class business attire sat around the room, facing the man who stood at the center. In almost cartoon unison everybody turned to look at her.
Crap, crap, crap. "Hi," she said. "Excuse me. Wrong door." Backing out the again, she closed the door behind her.
She was halfway down the stairs when the door opened again. "Samantha, stop right there."
"I’m sorry," she returned, stopping on the landing to face the house’s owner. "You said you were at your damn office."
Richard Addison. British billionaire, businessman, collector, philanthropist, body like a professional soccer player, and eyes bluer than sapphires. And after five months he still apparently had an incurable woody for one former thief. Hot damn.
"And you were shopping." He descended the stairs after her, stopping to lay a palm on her stomach – or where it was under all the padding. "You look good plump."
Yep, he still thought she was cute, bulges and all. "I had a burger for lunch."
"And apparently several large buildings, Godzilla."
"Ha, ha. It’s my dress and shoes." She lifted her blouse to pull the bundle out from under her clothes. "I told you I went shopping."
Those deep blue eyes lowered to the bag. "You did buy red."
"You suggested it. But that was when I thought you were at your office, which you apparently weren’t."
"I was," he countered, taking the bag from her and draping it over the bannister. "We were on Extra last night."
Samantha scowled at him. "You see? And you said we’d just slip out of the airport, ‘quiet as church mice’." She imitated his slightly faded London accent as she spoke, noting the responding twitch of his sensuous lips.
"Yes, well, apologies. Anyway, half of New York decided to give me a call today to welcome me back. I got tired of it, so we relocated here."
"That’s your fault, for being so handsome and rich and famous." She grinned at him. "Just don’t try to cancel on me for dinner or the auction tonight."
"So you know where we’re going."
She flashed him a grin. "Ben asked me when we wanted the limo tonight. I wheedled it out of him."
"That’s me, all right."
"So are you wearing that dress, at least?"
"That’s why I bought it."
Rick edged closer, sliding a hand around her waist and drawing her up against him. "All the better for me. No one will be able to take their eyes off you long enough to bid on any of the artwork."
"Everybody dresses up for Sotheby’s evening auctions."
"Not the way you do." He kissed her, soft and slow. It made her knees weak. "Tell me how you know about Sotheby’s evening auctions."
"I haven’t hit Sotheby’s in three years, if that’s what you’re implying." Well, two, anyway, if she counted the one in London.
"Mm hm. I’ll be finished in the office by six." He leaned down and kissed her again, bending her spine back just to let her know that he meant it. His hand crept up beneath her blouse, sliding along the bare skin of her stomach.
Her toes practically curled. "Okay," she returned, forcing her mind back to matters at hand. "I’m going to grab a snack, then fax Stoney and take a shower." She brushed his hand away, slipped out of his arms, retrieved her dress, and continued down the stairs.
Deep satisfaction swirled down her spine to mingle with heady arousal as he headed back up to his office. Ha. She’d done it. This was the third time now she’d broken into one of his houses, and this time he hadn’t caught her. He hadn’t suspected a thing.
Damn. She looked back up to the head of the stairs to see him gazing toward the far window with its missing pane. He had good vision, but hell, not that good. "Yes, Rick?" she said, echoing his tone again. Never give anything away. That was one of the thieves’ rules as quoted by her dad to her on a regular basis until Martin had ended up in prison and then dead just over three years ago.
"There are a dozen coats and two briefcases in the entryway," Rick was saying. "How did you pass them by without realizing I was here with company?"
"I was distracted. Have fun with your minions."
"And why would you walk through the front door and up the stairs with a dress wadded up under your blouse?"
"My hands were full."
"With that missing window pane up here, by any chance?"
Okay, once discovered, distract. "Rick, I–"
He descended the stairs again. "You broke into the house."
"Maybe," she hedged, backing down to the first floor. "What if I just forgot my key?"
Rick joined her at the foot of the stairs. "You might have knocked at the front door. Wilder is here, and so is Vilseau," he said, tilting his head at her, his eyes growing cool.
He hated having her try to pull one on him, whatever the circumstances. Samantha blew out her breath. At least she knew when to give up. "Okay, okay. Boyden Locke talked to my boobs for forty minutes while I sold him on some security upgrades for his townhouse. And then I went shopping for the dress, and I just kept noticing . . . things."
"Cameras, alarm systems. Everything. It was making me crazy. Plus we’re going to an art auction tonight, and I was just feeling a little . . . tense. So I decided to subvert my bad self by busting in somewhere. I picked a safe place."
"And I caught you again." He reached out, curling a strand of her auburn hair around his fingers. "The last time I did that, we broke a chair afterwards, as I recall."
Technically this time he’d caught her well after the fact and because of a huge mistake on her part, but as the raw, hungry shiver traveled down her backbone she wasn’t about to contradict him. She drew her free hand around the back of his neck and leaned in to give him a deep, soft kiss. "So you want another reward, I suppose?"
He nuzzled against her ear. "Definitely," he whispered.
She was going to explode. "Why don’t you get rid of your minions, then, and I’ll reward you right now?"
Rick’s muscles shuddered against her. "Stop tempting me."
"But I broke into your big old house. Don’t you–"
He pushed her back against the mahogany bannister, nearly sending them both over it as he took her mouth in a hard, hot kiss.
Ah, this was more like it. There had to be something wrong with her, with the way that even after five months she couldn’t get enough of him. Thank God he had the same problem where she was concerned.
Still, the sooner he finished his meeting, the sinking logical part of her brain said, the sooner they could get to Sotheby’s. Deep as her hunger for Rick ran, that place was like a thief’s Mecca. Knowing the special auction was taking place was the reason she’d agreed to abandon her new security business in Palm Beach and join him in New York, though she’d never admit it aloud.
His mouth crept down her to jaw line, and her legs turned to spaghetti. "Stop, stop, stop," she muttered, probably so quietly he couldn’t hear her.
He could. Rick backed off an inch. "I’m supposed to be the responsible one. Not you, sweetheart."
"I know, but I’m getting hungry."
Rick narrowed his eyes. "For me, for dinner, or for the auction?"
"All three, Brit. Get back to your office and get rid of those guys."
"Give me an hour, Yank."
"You got it. Any more, and I’m going to dinner with the butler."
"No, you’re not."
With that he vanished back upstairs, quietly closing the door behind him. For a long moment Samantha frowned up the staircase. Despite the considerable distraction Rick represented, she needed to consider what had just happened. Man, she’d screwed up. No, he hadn’t exactly caught her, but the point was that he wouldn’t have known anything about her window entry at all except for her own bumbling. Not that there was any real harm in interrupting one of Rick’s meetings except for the embarrassment factor, but she’d just waltzed into a room full of people without having a clue that they were there. If she’d done that in her previous life, she’d probably be lying on her back with a chalk outline around her right now.
She grabbed an apple from the kitchen, probably offending Vilseau the chef, then returned upstairs to the room beside the office. In the large brown and black bedroom suite that she and Rick shared, Samantha flopped backward onto the bed. She was getting soft. There was no reason to argue with herself about that. The question was, did it matter any longer?
Obviously as long as she stayed with Rick she couldn’t go back to her old way of life. He was too high profile, and there was that sticky issue of morality, plus the fact that he was chummy with far too many of the people from whom she’d stolen artworks or treasures or antiques.
It was only the rush that she missed, the intense sensation of being alive that came from sneaking into places she wasn’t supposed to be in order to acquire things she wasn’t supposed to have. She didn’t keep those things, but she had damned well enjoyed the money she got for them.
Right on cue her cell phone rang, to the tune of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. "I told you never to call me here," she said as she dug the phone out of her purse and flipped it open.
"Where are you, then?" came the familiar voice of her ex-fence, surrogate father, and current business partner Walter "Stoney" Barstone. "‘Cause unless it’s the john, baby, I don’t remember you telling me any such thing."
"I meant while I’m on vacation."
"You’ve never taken a real vacation in your life. And I just wanted to find out how the thing with Locke went."
She blew out her lips. "It went fine. The guy’s a perv, but he’s loaded. I’ll fax you in half an hour or so with the details so we can send him a bill."
Stoney stayed quiet for a beat. "You sound real excited about it."
"Yeah, well, I kind of broke into the house here, and stumbled right into the middle of Rick’s meeting."
"What the hell did you do that for?"
"Because I tried to go shopping earlier, and I cased every store I walked into on Madison Avenue. It was giving me a fucking panic attack."
He had the bad manners to laugh at her. "Then stop shopping on Madison Avenue, honey. There’s better stuff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, anyway. In fact, I know two guys who have open requests for anything you can pick up by Renoir or Monet. We’re talking a cool half million for each."
"Shut up. I don’t want to know about those people." Frowning at the phone, Samantha rolled onto her stomach. "Besides, I never did museums, if you’ll recall."
"I recall. What about Sotheby’s? Did you talk the billionaire into going with you tonight?"
"It was his idea," she returned defensively. "And I’m keeping my hands in my pockets. I’m just going to take in the view, and maybe to advise Rick on artwork."
"Uh huh. Whatever you say."
"That is what I say."
"Fine, honey. I was just trying to help distract you from your crisis."
Samantha blew him a raspberry. "With friends like you, yadda yadda yadda."
"I love you, too, Sam. And hey, as long as I’m already interrupting your vacation, those business cards we’ve been spreading around Palm Beach have been paying off. Aubrey took three calls for appointments over the weekend. One mansion, one art studio, and an attorney’s office."
Oh, good, more joy and excitement for her. "Blech. Go talk to ‘em, then."
"They don’t want to take security advice from me, Sam. They want Rick Addison’s girlfriend. The one who has fist fights with murdering heiresses and lays the smackdown on guys who steal paintings from Rick."
"Christ, Stoney, you make me sound like the Masked Mangler or something. I used my brain power, thank you very much." Of course on various occasions she’d also ended up with a concussion and a bullet graze and a series of other cuts and bruises, but hey, she’d won.
"Then that’s what they want. Your brain power. And you in person."
Three calls on a March weekend in Palm Beach, Florida wasn’t bad at all, when she considered it. Most of the wealthiest part-time residents had left for their summer homes, and the number of year-round residents was tiny compared to the winter influx. "Did Aubrey tell them I was on a business trip?"
"Is that what you’re calling it now?" She heard his sigh. "Yes, he told them."
"Then we’ll schedule something when I get back. It’ll be another ten days or so."
"Whatever you say. Just keep in mind that I’m not running this shit all by myself. We’re partners, remember? And besides, I think Aubrey’s getting kind of interested in me."
Samantha snorted. "You are pretty cute. Ten days. I promise. I’m trying to be a good significant other."
"Then you’d better quit casing stores. Addison probably wouldn’t like that."
He actually hadn’t seemed too upset, or even surprised. And she’d told him, which had to count for something. "I’m hanging up now. Bye, sweetie."
Groaning, she sat up again and strolled in to the bathroom to turn on the shower. As if she needed Stoney to tell her that thievery wouldn’t mix with her new life. Hell, she’d been straight for five months now – and as much as it was so she could stay with Rick Addison, even more it was for her. It was still so odd, to think of a life where she could settle in one place and not have to wipe her fingerprints off every doorknob in case the police or Interpol were following her, looking for evidence.
She was in that new life now. Why, then, did she feel like she both wanted to keep on her toes, and that she needed to? Old habits and all that shit, she supposed. But to stop looking over her shoulder – that would be harder than remembering to smile for the paparazzi.
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