A Stolen Suit - bonus story (contains spoilers)
I’m about to go to a pet adoption event at Bear’s Buns Bakery. Yes, you read that right. Love does strange things to a man. I guess you could say I also have an angle for this particular visit.
Gracie knows a thing or twelve about brand management, and she suggested Sinclair Jones’s socials media accounts would blow up—more—if she were seen hugging a few puppies. Challenge accepted.
Besides, Sinclair just hired a bodyguard, and I wanted to be present for their first public outing. Hiring Rafe was a calculated risk. He’s not polished; he won’t tuck neatly into the background. I’m hoping both of those things will work in our favor. For one, a possible stalker has been leaving Sinclair messages, so it’s to her benefit if everyone and their third cousin knows she has a big, threatening man following her around. For another, it fits as part of her new relatability schtick. Sure, she has a bodyguard, but he’s the kind of guy you’d see working at a gym.
Possibly literally, since that was Rafe’s last job.
Fuck, maybe this was a mistake.
“You shouldn’t have worn the suit,” Gracie mutters the second we step into the coffee shop. She’s wearing a red sweater that matches her lips and black mesh cutout leggings, and she couldn’t look more fucking perfect if she tried.
My nephew, Remi, and my father both laugh as they follow us in. They insisted on coming, of course. Remi hasn’t met Sinclair yet, and he’s apparently as big of a fan of Sisters of Sin, her old TV show, as he was of Vera Valentine’s books before we discovered she’s a thief.
“Probably not,” I admit to Gracie, “but then how would you have recognized me?”
“I have my ways.” Her smile helps me ignore the fact that this place, which smelled like coffee and cinnamon on our last visit, stinks of Udolpho after his weekly bath.
“Remi, maybe we need to bathe Udolpho twice a week,” I tell him, looking back as the door shuts behind him and my father.
“I think bathing him just brings out his natural smell,” my dad says with a grin. “You’re fighting a losing battle, Sunshine.”
Probably, but that’s never stopped me from trying.
Sinclair’s not here yet. We’re the cavalry, riding in first to get the lay of the land. It looks like the adoption event is taking place in the back, probably for the best since no one wants hair from little Sparky on their pastries. There are several animals in pet carriers, along with their handlers, and peppy little signs are set out on the tables with the animals’ names.
We knew about this event from Nicole, of course, since her friend runs the adoption center. It’s where Udolpho spent several long months—an unlucky thirteen, I guess—before we were tricked into adopting him.
I can’t say I regret it, although my suits definitely do.
“Well,” I say, clapping my hands. “This scent has certainly put me off eating or drinking anything.” I grin at Gracie. “What do you want?” Then I glance at my dad and Remi to include them in the question. “You guys grab a table and I’ll get our order.”
I’m the only one who’s been put off my food, because they all ask for bear claws, and I make the executive decision to get Gracie a coffee too. I have fond memories of that coffee cup she imprinted with her crimson lips the first day she dragged me here.
The woman behind the counter is the same one who was here that day.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says, seeming slightly alarmed by that fact.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Nicole has finished fucking with my life, and you know what? It worked out okay.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir,” she tells me, but the dimple popping out in her cheek says otherwise. So does the fact that she gives me all the bear claws and the coffee on the house.
When I walk toward the table where Gracie and the guys are sitting, I feel a now-familiar warmth in my chest at the sight. It feels like they all belong together. Like we all belong together. I’m grateful to have gotten something so important right. I’ve been gone a matter of minutes, and they’re already playing with a kitten from one of the travel crates.
“Nope, nuh-uh,” I say as I join them, setting down the bag of bear claws and sliding the coffee in front of Gracie.
She grins and lifts up the little kitten with the striped orange face. The squirming furball bats the air with its front legs. “You don’t think she’d be the perfect mascot for Level Up Brand Management?”
“I don’t want to see her become dog food for Udolpho.”
My father huffs a laugh as he reaches into the bag for his bear claw. “That dog couldn’t catch a half dead beetle, let alone a kitten. Why, just yesterday, I saw him try to snap one up, and he’s the one who ended up falling. He doesn’t have the sense God gave a beetle.”
“Which is precisely why we love him,” Gracie says, handing the kitten back to his handler with a smile. “Thank you,” she tells her. “We’ll think about it.”
“We won’t,” I interject as I sit down next to Gracie, sliding a hand onto her thigh Truth be told, though, if she wants a cat, we’re probably going to get a cat. I have a hard time saying no to her.
“What’s Sinclair like?” Remi asks, his eyes bright.
“She’s not a teenager,” I say, “so I’m guessing she’s not much like her character on the show.”
“She’s surprising,” Gracie offers, then takes a sip of coffee. I grin to myself when I see she’s left another of those crimson marks. I’d like her to leave some on me.
“Surprising how?” Remi asks. “Is it a bad surprise, like with Vera, or a good one?”
“Jury’s out on that, bud,” I say.
Gracie nudges her shoulder into mine but smiles at me. “You like her.”
“I like her,” I agree. Turning to Remi, I say, “She’s a person who’s trying to find herself, just like the rest of us. She just happens to have been on TV for several years.”
“Yeah, like that’s no big thing, Uncle Knock,” he says, rolling his eyes.
I’m amused by his fan service, but he’s better off being starstruck by Sinclair than Vera. I’ll take it.
A text pings on my phone, and I take it out of my pocket.
The clay pigeon has landed.
The text is from Rafe, who refers to Sinclair as Clay. He can call her whatever the hell he wants, so long as he protects her. Sinclair’s not a fan of the nickname, presumably because she earned it by throwing a clay dick at his back, but I have a feeling she’d shut him down if she really objected to it.
“They’re here,” I announce.
Then I send a text back to Rafe: Bring her in through the back.
While we do want people to take photographs, we decided against calling in the real press for this one. Other patrons of the coffee shop and adoption event will take pictures and videos—I have no doubt of that—but they’ll be posting them to Instagram and Facebook. To TikTok. It’ll further our message that Sinclair is both real and relatable.
There’s no question Sinclair will be noticed. She has a recognizable face, and her mother went on a nationally syndicated talk show not that long ago to make up shitty lies about her. Everyone knows former Netflix star Sinclair Jones is here in Asheville. They’ll spread word that she was here in this coffee shop.
I get up and then help Gracie up too. Obviously she doesn't need help, but I’ll take any excuse to touch her.
Remi’s eyes go wide. “Can I come say hi to Sinclair?” he asks.
He’s like Gracie—he can ask pretty much anything of me.
“Yeah, come on,” I say. My dad sets aside his partially eaten pastry and gives me a look, and I laugh. “Let me guess? You’re a Sisters of Sin fan, and you’ve never said?”
He shrugs. “I watch it with the kid sometimes when you’re at work.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be ambushing Sinclair at the back door with a parade of fan, but then again, it’ll look good for her if she pays attention to an older man and a teenager. That’s the kind of thing a down-to-earth celebrity would do.
“Let’s go,” I tell them, and we all head to the back, clustering around it like her own personal paparazzi. Rafe peeks in first, coming off as a reverse bouncer, although he’s wearing a pair of mirror sunglasses that make me think he watched a few bodyguard movies in preparation for his role. I wasn’t sure about him—he doesn’t seem to take life too seriously, which isn’t all that shocking given his father, Reggie, has all but retired at a bar. But he looks serious now. His gaze combs the bakery, taking in the tacky (Gracie would say “sweet”) décor and the various animal carriers. He nods to me and then steps back.
“Is she going to come in now?” Remi asks. He looks more excited than he did on Christmas morning. Then again, he’s a teenager, not a toddler—his words—so of course he’s more excited to see a celebrity.
Sinclair steps in, and Rafe closes the door behind her. Even though we didn’t tip anyone off, I hear a few people fall silent mid-sentence, then one lady loudly says to her partner, “Isn’t she pretty? She looks just like the girl on that dumb Netflix show. You know the one.”
Rafe laughs under his breath, but the rest of us manage to keep straight faces. Sinclair doesn’t react at all. I wonder what she’s thinking beneath her mask. Is she pissed? Does she think it’s a stupid show too?
I haven’t outright asked her. Successful people can have the most sensitive egos of anyone you’ll ever meet. Especially creative types. They’re part of the work they do on such a deep level it can’t fully be separated from them.
When I first met Sinclair, I was sure she was cycling from one hobby to the next on repeat because she’s an actor who misses acting. Now, I can’t help wondering if it’s not because she misses acting so much as she’s formed a co-dependent relationship with it and doesn't know what else to do. It’s my job to get her work, though, not psychoanalyze her or tear apart her personal life.
No, I’ll leave that to Nicole and Damien.
“Hey, guys,” Sinclair says casually. “Good to see you here.”
“I was sorry to hear Edgar couldn’t come,” I say for show. She’s supposedly dating Edgar James, reality TV show survivalist and my only other current client at Level Up Brand Management. Their relationship is fake, but if fake things have enough of a framework holding them up, they can take on the appearance of reality. That’s what we need, for both of their images.
Rafe snorts. “He’s off searching for mushrooms.”
“Mushrooms are delicious,” Sinclair says frostily. “He offered to bring me some as a gift. Anyway, you shouldn’t listen in on private conversations.”
“Can’t make my ears stop working, Clay.”
“But presumably you have some control over your mouth.”
Well, damn. I can’t decide whether I think they’re off to a bad start or if this is the kind of thing people eat up—Sinclair Jones’s bickering act with her bodyguard. They might buy tickets.
Rafe throws her a silent salute, smirking, and she scowls and looks away.
Remi looks a little intimidated now, probably because he’s afraid she’ll tear him a new one too, but she’s all smiles when she looks at us.
“This is my nephew, Remi.” I nod to him, and he steps forward. “And my dad, Rich. Turns out they’re big fans of yours.”
Sinclair does all the right things, offering to take a photo posed between them, and Remi would probably only be more pleased if he could somehow manage to both take the photo and be in it.
“You’ve made them happy,” Gracie says into my ear after I snap a couple of photos. The sensation of her warm breath at my nape sense a shudder of need through me, and that red lipstick sure as hell isn’t helping.
“Only so I can make them grateful enough that they’ll clean the house,” I say. We still haven’t hired a real maid after the Nicole fiasco. I’m a little gunshy for obvious reasons.
“Uh-huh,” she says, leaning in to kiss the side of my face. “I’ve got your number.”
“I’d hope so. We’re getting married, you know. It would be pretty awkward if you didn’t have it.”
She laughs and rubs her lipstick off my cheek, although I wouldn’t have minded wearing it around as a badge of pride. I glance at the door to the back. Rafe’s leaning against the wall next to it, his eyes on Sinclair. His expression is interesting, but I can’t interpret it, and I don’t get much of a chance because Remi’s already rushing back to reclaim his phone, presumably to make sure my efforts meet his editorial standards. Sure enough, he reaches for it. His mouth forms a pout while he studies the second picture, but he nods his approval at the first, so I guess I get a passing grade.
Meanwhile, my dad seems to be talking to Sinclair about pottery, the most recent craft she picked up and then dropped, so I’m guessing he must follow her on Instagram. Who is this person, and what has he done with my father?
“Do you think she’ll let me take a photo of her playing with a kitten?” Remi asks. “Maybe she’d even put it on her Instagram?”
He’s practically glowing. If it were a bad idea, I’d have to tell him no, but it’s a pretty fucking good one. Everyone likes baby animals. Well, almost everyone. I’d still prefer to keep a distance between myself and any animal that’s likely to deposit waste or hair on me. But as the people in my family love to remind me, I have, despite myself, bonded with Udolpho.
“Let’s do it, bud,” I say, clapping him on the back.
The three of us, Gracie and me and Remi, approach my dad and Sinclair. He grins at her. “Look at me, talking your ear off. You’re lucky I didn’t talk your fingers off like someone did to me.” It’s his favorite joke, the old curmudgeon, and he lifts his injured hand to show her his severed fingers.
She flinches—who wouldn’t with that delivery?—but she recovers remarkably quickly. “You got me.”
He winks at her, and Gracie gives my shoulder a nudge. “Look who you got it from?”
“My poise and charm?”
“Your horrible sense of humor.” She’s smiling at my dad as she says it, and he shrugs to indicate she has a point.
Remi swallows visibly, then says, “Miss Jones—”
“Sinclair,” she corrects with a smile. “ Call me Sinclair.”
“Miss Sinclair,” he says, “will you let me take a photo of you with one of the kittens? If it’s good enough, I was thinking that maybe you could—”
“You’d take a photo for my Instagram account?” she asks, and fuck, I have to like her for being so enthusiastic about it. “I’d love it if you would. Your uncle has shown me some of your photographs.”
Remi gives me a look of incredulity. “You have?”
So sue me. He’s talented, and I’m proud of him.
He beams at me, and Gracie takes my hand and squeezes it. Maybe I should act humble, but I’m pleased I’ve pleased them, and I don’t feel the need to pretend otherwise.
I talk to one of the volunteers, a woman in her forties with long salt and pepper hair and a shirt hat says 70% cotton, 30% dog hair, and Gracie helps me choose a kitten for the photo.
“I’m Mia,” the woman says. Lowering her voice, she say, “Are you here with Sinclair Jones? You don’t have to tell me, but blink twice if it’s her.”
Grlooks amused, but I’m not interested in playing games, and I like having the freedom to blink the normal amount, so I say, “It’s her. She’s a big animal lover.” I’m not actually sure if that’s true, but in for a penny.
You don’t hesitate to tell me if you need anything,” Mia says with a wink. I’m not at all surprised when she follows me to the table we were sitting at earlier, although for all I know she needs to do it as part of her agreement with the shelter.
Sinclair joins us. Pretty much everyone who’s left in the bakery is openly looking at her now, and several people have come in since we arrived. When Sinclair sees the kitten, the polished look drops from her face, and something warm and wanting enters her eyes.
Remi’s practically buzzing with his need to capture it as she cuddles the little kitten to her chest, speaking to him in a voice too low for me to hear. My nephew moves back and forth and then crouches down, his finger poised over the button and descending in random-seeming bursts.
When I glance back at Rafe, checking in, he looks like he’s wearing those sunglasses to conceal that he’s taking a nap. Hell, maybe he is.
“What’s his name?” Sinclair asks Mia, who’s lingering near her, watching with the eager eyes of someone who’ll be talking about this later.
“Clay,” the woman says, and Sinclair jolts a little and glances at the door. At Rafe.
Gracie gives me a knowing look. She has this theory that Rafe and Sinclair are prickly with each other because they want to tear their clothes off. It was certainly true of us.
“Could he be renamed?” Sinclair asks.
“Well, yes, I think so,” the woman says. “He’s only two months old, and cats don’t really come when they’re called anyway. You could call him Mello Yellow if you want, and your choice would only be between you and God.”
“You’re getting a cat?” I ask, surprised. I thought we were just here for some photo opps and for her to make a healthy donation to the adoption center.
“Maybe,” she says, her voice kind of dreamy. “I always wanted a pet, growing up, but we never got one. My father was allergic to cats. And my mother—”
She shakes her head as if snapping herself out of the chatty mood.
“You should,” Remy says, grinning at her. “You look great with him!”
Something like sadness flashes across her face, and it occurs to me that Remi, however well intentioned, said exactly the wrong thing. She’s probably heard that very phrase dozens of times.
Sighing, I say, “I never wanted a pet myself, but I’ve come into ownership of a dog…” I shoot Gracie a look. She grins at me, unrepentant. “And it’s nice to have the company.”
“We’re not enough for you, Sunshine?” my dad asks as he finishes his bear claw.
“No,” I lie. Looking at Sinclair, I say, “You should do it.” I mean it, and not just because it would be good for her brand. Something about her screams loneliness. Hobby hopping hasn’t done it for her, but maybe having a pet will.
“I don’t know if I could take care of him right,” she says, petting his fur gently, like she’s worried she’ll break him. “What if—”
“I’ve seen your type before.” A stranger has hustled up to our table without my noticing—a tall guy with a mountain man beard and a fierce expression that suggest his hobbies include hunting and gathering and building his own shelter. “You’ll blow into town and adopt a cat and then you’ll leave him behind in your apartment like he’s a piece of junk you don’t want anymore.”
“I’d never do that to anyone. Not a person or a cat. Never,” she says fiercely, her eyes glittering. He’s gotten beneath her skin.
“Wouldn’t you? I know who you are. I went to school with your brother. Back then, he made it sound like you left your own family as soon as you could.”
Her face has lost all color, and shit, people around us are noticing.
I get to my feet, ready to handle the situation—even if handling it means bodily removing the guy from the bakery—but Rafe, who looked like he was sleeping a couple of minutes ago, gets there before me.
“This guy bothering you, Clay?”
The mountain man crows, “Oh, you hired muscle to keep away the plebs?”
“No, sir,” Rafe says, heavy on the mockery. “She hired me to keep people from harassing her. Now, tell me, do you intend to continue harassing her? Because if so, I don’t think anyone will object to me removing you from the premises.”
The volunteer, Mia, seems positively giddy about the possibility. “Could you lift him out?” she asks, eyeing Rafe’s arms with appreciation. “Yes, I think you could. You could probably cradle him like a baby.”
“It’s fine,” Sinclair says, giving the kitten one last pet before handing him over to Gracie. “He’s probably right about the kitten.”
“No, it’s not fine,” Rafe says tightly. “You want the damn cat, get the damn cat. You’re the kind of woman who should have a cat.”
From the way he says it, it could be a compliment or an insult, and the flat line of Sinclair’s mouth suggests she thinks it’s the latter.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the mountain man asks.
“I was wondering the same thing,” Sinclair says tightly.
“It means you don’t need a goddamn panel to decide whether you want to get a pet,” Rafe says, then turns to the mountain man. “Just like you wouldn’t. Although you might need one.”
“No, it’s not our policy to do that sort of thing,” Mia says, flicking some hair off her animal hair T-shirt. “But if you think we should institute a policy like that, I’ll be sure to bring it up at the next meeting.” Her eyes light up, and she gives him a speculative look. “Maybe you can come to our next meeting. Everyone will listen if you say it.”
“No, thanks,” he says, “I’m busy.”
“But I didn’t tell you when the meeting is.”
“I’m always busy.”
Gracie tries to hand the kitten back to Sinclair, and there’s a moment’s pause before she takes him.
“Are you going to adopt him?” Remi asks her.
I think we’re all interested in her answer, even my dad.
She glances at Rafe before answering. “Yeah, I think I am,” she says, grinning at the little cat as he bats at her chin.
“Well, that’s just great,” the mountain man says.
“Yeah,” Rafe says, wrapping his arms around his chest in a way that makes them look even more menacing. “We think so too. Now, what’s it going to be? Are you going to back off, or am I going to make you?”
“I think you should make him,” says Mia, who clearly hasn’t seen much excitement lately. “He’s been very rude. Are you going to throw him over your shoulder or do the princess-hold thing?”
The guy loses color and stalks off, which is probably the only intelligent thing he’s done all day, or maybe ever. I’m pleased by the way this has gone—very pleased. Remi’s photos of Sinclair, the kitten adoption, the donation she’ll be making, all of it. Then there’s Rafe. He’s shown that he’ll stand up for Sinclair when she needs it. He’s clearly good at watching and making judgment calls about when he needs to step in.
The afternoon rolls on, and Sinclair heads home with her new kitten, followed out by Rafe, who will see her to her building.
My dad and Remi peel off from us. They both want to go see the latest super hero movie, and Gracie and I never miss an opportunity to have the house to ourselves.
“Looks like we’re finally alone together,” I say, giving Gracie a sidelong look as I unlock the door. Her blond hair is bobbing in the wind, and her eyes look as blue as the Carolina sky. I want her. I always want her.
The instant I open the door, Udolpho tackles me with his paws, even though Gracie, Remi, and I have spent several hours trying to train him out of this exact habit.
Gracie bends over from the force of her laughter, hair swinging in her face. “You should have seen your face,” she says through gasps of air.
“Yes, very funny,” I say, nudging him down. There’s now a line of fur all up and down my suit.
Gracie grabs the end of my tie and pulls me closer. “You look pretty sexy all covered in fur.”
My blood boils. “You look pretty sexy all the time.”
“I have some ideas about what I want you to do with this tie.” She gives it a little tug, sending need pulsing through me, and glances at Udolpho. “Obviously after we put Udolpho in one of the rooms with his chew toy.”
“Obviously,” I say, grabbing her ass.
“But first I want to say I told you so.”
I bark a laugh. “Of course you do. It’s our mutual favorite line. What did you tell me so about this time?”
“Sinclair and Rafe,” she says, practically glowing with her certainty that she’s right. “There’s something there.”
“They both like cats, at any rate,” I say. “Hey, you know what? I like them too.” I smirk at her. “I especially like your sweet little p—”
And she pulls me closer by my tie and kisses me hard, biting my bottom lip for good measure.
God, I love my fiancée.
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