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Excerpt from
The Love Bandits

Chapter One



Both of my parents are con artists. Bad con artists. 

       But if wishing for status they weren’t born into and money they didn’t earn were an art, they’d be Matisse and Rodin. Sometimes they get little wins, though, like the time my mother acquired a rich lady’s wallet when I was ten. I helped her cut her hair to better match the photo on the license, and we snuck into the woman’s private club for an afternoon of bliss. We ordered food and charged it to her account, swam, got massages, and then booked it before anyone could notice.

       I might have only been ten, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew it was wrong, and my mother definitely did. It also felt really, really good—like we were playing a game and winning, and no one else knew about it. I don’t think we’ve ever enjoyed each other’s company more than we did that afternoon.

       When we left, my mother had a glimmer in her eyes and a bounce in her step. She was happy, which I wasn’t used to seeing, and I felt some of her shine rubbing off on me. I remember thinking, So this is what it feels like to be rich.

       My mom brought me home, to our cramped fourth-floor walk-up in Inwood, although my mother liked to say we lived on the Upper East Side. And once we were sitting on the couch, directly in front of the fan, because it was hot as the seventh circle of hell outside and in, she leaned in close and said, “This is going to be our little secret, Elaine. Don’t even tell your father.”

       “Can we do it again?” I asked, because acting rich had felt pretty damn good, and I wanted more.

       She laughed so hard her head tipped back.

       “Not as Marjorie Eccles,” she finally answered with a wink, wrapping her arm around my narrow shoulders. “But she’s not the only one who doesn’t know how to hold onto her handbag.”

       That was news to me, because I’d thought she’d found it lying on the sidewalk. A feeling of misgiving pricked at me—finders keepers was one thing, but snatching a handbag was a definite crime.

       “You really nabbed her purse?” I asked.

       She shrugged and leaned toward the fan like she wanted it to swallow her. “You know stealing is wrong, Elaine, but she needed someone to teach her the golden rule. I saw her kick a homeless man’s hat, and the money he was collecting scattered everywhere. Who would do a thing like that?”

       “Did you give the cash in the bag to him?” I asked, getting caught up in the picture she was drawing.

       Robin Hood was my favorite story—taking from the rich and giving to the poor. I wanted to be like him when I grew up, but when I’d communicated as much to my best friend, Claire, she’d bitten her lip and said, “But you can do that in a legal way. Like, maybe you could become a civil rights lawyer.”

       “That sounds like a lot of work,” I’d replied. It went without saying that it sounded like boring work.

       “Probably,” she’d said thoughtfully, “but learning how to steal from people without getting caught would be hard too.”

       But apparently I already had a thief in the house, so maybe it wouldn’t be impossible to become Robin Hood.

I watched my mother expectantly as she sighed and leaned in even closer to the fan. “Well?” I prodded.

       “Of course I did, Lainey,” she said without flinching.

       She said it so seriously, without any hitch in her voice. Then again, she’d always been a good liar. So I—


       “Is there any point to this story?” asks my business partner, Nicole, kicking back in her chair. Her pink hair is a pop of bright color beneath the low lighting.

       We’re sitting at a round table in the kitchen of a cabin in Marshall, NC, drinking beers. My best friend—Claire, of the well-intentioned advice—inherited this place with Nicole from their biological father. Since Claire is the closest thing to a sibling I’ve ever had, I followed her here.

       It didn’t hurt that my life in New York City had crashed and burned.

       But that was a few months ago. Claire recently moved in with her boyfriend, who lives next door with his sister, and Nicole doesn’t stay at the cabin much anymore because she and her husband own a much nicer house in Asheville. So I’m the last woman standing, living in this cabin that I’ve lucked my way into, owned by two people who don’t charge me rent.

       My parents taught me well.

       Nicole came over to discuss the new business venture we’ve been working on together, The Love Fixers, services for people who have been screwed over by love. It’s a work in progress, because I have to balance it with a part-time job as a personal assistant for an older rich woman who dislikes me, and Nicole is a private investigator who keeps unpredictable hours.

       Claire is basically here as our cheerleader, giving us what little energy she has left after waking up at four a.m. to get ready for the morning rush at her bakery. Her brownie-slash-donut creation, Bronuts, are already on several “best of Marshall” lists—although admittedly those lists aren’t long and there aren’t many of them. In the tourism race in Western North Carolina, this town is usually an afterthought, a pit stop. It’s a refreshing difference from living in New York City.

       “Well?” Nicole says, lifting her eyebrows and rocking some more.

       Claire, who’s sitting at the table with us, shoots her a dirty look. “Of course there’s a point. She’s getting to it. It’s called dramatic timing.”

       “Thank you for the encouragement,” I say with a smile.

       Nicole rolls her eyes. “You’re not a kindergarten teacher, Claire. You don’t have to give out star stickers.”

       “I know where she’s going with it,” Claire says with a nod.

       “So you’ve been bored by it before,” Nicole replies, but there’s a hint of amusement to her mouth.

       “You know you want know what happens next,” I say.

       She waves her hand, which is as much of a go-ahead as I’m likely to get.

       “I went looking for Marjorie Eccles. It wasn’t hard. My mom had hidden the purse and the wallet. She was probably planning to destroy them—”

       “Or keep them as a souvenir like a serial killer,” Nicole says.

       “Maybe,” I concede with a shrug. “Anyway, I went to the address on her license and returned the rest of her things. Pretended I’d found her purse thrown out on the sidewalk.”

       “Like if a mugger had tossed it after taking the good stuff,” Nicole says with a nod of approval.

       “Well, yeah,” I say, “which is basically what happened. Anyway, I took it to her building, and she came down to get it. She told me I was a good citizen and the sweetest little girl she’d ever seen. And then she gave me fifty bucks.”

       “Did you give it to your mother?” Nicole asks.

       I give her a flat look, remembering the shame and sense of wanting I’d felt as I took that bill. Because I’d wanted to deserve it but had been very aware that the only reason she’d lost her bag in the first place was because my mother had stolen it.

       “So you’re not entirely stupid.”

       “Hopefully not. Anyway, it turns out Marjorie was on the board of a charity geared toward ending homelessness.”

       “One kicked hat at a time,” Nicole says with a glimmer in her eyes.

       “My mother was lying.”

       Claire shrugs and nods at the same time, her expression sympathetic. She knows my mother’s a liar. She’s been to a dozen MLM parties for everything from shitty makeup to shitty tinctures, and my God, my mother acts like every bad product she decides to peddle is going to end world hunger. Her hustle is so dedicated it’s almost admirable.


       I suppose I’d have spoken to her more recently than a few months ago if either of us found much to admire about the other.

       “Maybe,” Nicole says. “Probably. But you’re naïve if you think being on the board of that charity means she’s never kicked over any hats. Besides…you took advantage of her too.”      

       I nod. “Good people get taken advantage of. They get fucked over by people who don’t mean well, like my mother, and even people who do, like me.”

        “Your point?” she presses, rocking in her chair again.

       “Women like Marjorie need our help. I also have a lot of karma points to build, and sending out glitter bombs and ‘fuck you very much cookies’ to people’s exes isn’t going to do it. We’ve been thinking too small with the Love Fixers.” Our jobs have been small and sporadic, nothing Robin Hood would write home about. I want to make a real difference—to soak up people’s pain and then rain it down on the people who deserve it.

       “I’m proud of those cookies,” Claire interjects, tapping the table with her finger. “My sugar cookie recipe is to die for.”

       I give her a sympathetic look. “Claire, do you really think someone who gets a cookie that says ‘fuck you very much’ from their ex is going to eat it?”

       She visibly deflates. “Well, crap. It feels like I’ve  wasted a lot of effort. I should just be frosting graham crackers.”

       “But it’s the effort that goes into it that really sends the message home,” Nicole says, which is her version of a sisterly pat on the back. She picks up her beer and swigs it, then shifts her attention to me. “So, let’s have it. There’s something you want to do, and it’s dangerous, and for some reason, you think you need my blessing.”

       “You’re my business partner.” Meaning she’s the one who’s bankrolled this thing, in as much as it’s needed to be bankrolled. Right now all we have a vague website, an LLC, and a brick and mortar office in this house. But I’m not my parents’ child for nothing—I can think big, even if I can’t achieve big. In my head, I can see it growing into a real business, one with employees and salaries and maybe even a bonafide snack room.

       “Which means I trust you,” Nicole continues.

       This penetrates more deeply than she probably meant for it to. It pinches like a pair of pretty shoes that refuse to fit, no matter how many times you try to jam your foot in. I want to be a person who’s trustworthy, but I was raised by parents who taught me to lie and manipulate. To climb social ladders and then destroy them so no one else could follow me up. And, I’ll be honest, sometimes I fall into that behavior without even realizing it’s happening.

       Maybe I told the story, in part, as a warning.

       Don’t trust me.

       And here she is, saying she does.

       First, Nicole told me she believed in my idea and wanted to help me make a go of it, and now, in her own way, she’s saying she believes in me.

       I want that so badly it hurts. Which gives me pause, because I have to wonder: did I manipulate my way here? Was I dishonest without realizing it?

       It’s exhausting to constantly second guess yourself.

       Sighing, I take a swig of beer and pull my phone out, then scroll to the email, pulling it up. I’ve already told Claire about it, but I didn’t want to play show and tell with Nicole until I’d done a little ground work. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I want to impress her.

       I slide the phone over to her.

       “Assume I’m illiterate,” she says, squinting at it before sliding it back. Based on the way she was studying it, Claire’s far-sightedness is probably hereditary.

       Nicole would die before admitting she needs reading glasses.

       “The client went to a party with her boyfriend,” I say, “and later that night, they fought and broke up. But she left her heirloom heart pendant necklace in his apartment. And, get this, he won’t give it back. He claims it’s not there, but she knows exactly where she left it. He’s lying.”

       “Why are you so sure of that?” Nicole asks shrewdly, watching me.

       “It’s worth a lot of money,” I say, “and it has sentimental value for the client.” I think of the signed Yankees bat I stole from my ex-fiancé, Todd, which has a place of dishonor in my room here. He used to talk about that bat at parties for so long people’s eyes would glaze over, but he’d keep going for at least another two minutes because he wanted to make sure to establish his dominance—it was his privilege to bore them while talking about his privilege.

       “He wanted to take something that would hurt her,” I continue, “because she hurt him.”

       It’s probably hypocritical for me to care about her emotional pain and not Todd’s, but I didn’t find a stash of vanilla sex emails exchanged between her and her childhood sweetheart. She didn’t try to break me like I was a recalcitrant horse.

       “Why’d she split up with him?” Claire asks.

       “Was it porn?” Nicole puts in with fresh interest. “Let me guess, she found out he was into some really bleak shit.”

       I roll my eyes. “She broke up with him because she suspected he was a cheater, one of those guys who wanted to have his cake and eat it too.”
      “That’s such a dumb saying,” Nicole says. “Who the fuck would buy a cake but not want to eat it?”

       “The ‘fuck you very much’ cookie people,” Claire says sadly, and I can’t help but laugh.

       “My point is…” I say, waving my hand. “She didn’t trust him, and he couldn’t come up with a good explanation for his behavior. So she decided to cut her losses, and now he’s holding her necklace hostage, thus proving his unworthiness. Someone needs to step up and deal with this jerk, this absolute waste of humanity. I’m going to get that necklace back for her, and I’m going to make him regret the day he was born.”

       “And it will be therapeutic,” Claire says sadly, giving Nicole a significant look that probably flies right over her head. “Because Todd was a cheater.”

       “That has nothing to do with this,” I insist.

       Another lie, although this time everyone knows I’m lying. Still, there’s a lot Claire doesn’t know about the Todd situation…things I would prefer not to tell her.

       “I don’t care,” Nicole says flippantly. “Sounds fun. I like a good heist. I’m in.”

       “We could get into trouble,” I admit. “The business could get into trouble.”

       We set it up as an LLC, but I’m pretty sure ‘limited liability’ doesn’t cover stealing stuff for people.

       “I wouldn’t want to do it if that weren’t a possibility,” she says. “Did you run a background check on this woman?”

       Nicole showed me how to do it, so I took that step on my own, wanting to prove that I could follow instructions.

       “I did. And I met with her too.”

       “Here?” Nicole asks, raising her eyebrows.


       Cleo’s a little woman, with long black hair and big brown eyes, more Bambi than Disney princess, and I instantly felt an urge to protect her. I mean, what monster would want to inflict emotional damage on Bambi?

       One who deserves to have his fortress stormed—and I’m more than ready to do the storming.

       “Good,” Nicole says after I tell her about the meeting. “Let her know it’s a go. We’re in.”

       “Good,” I repeat, feeling a smile slide across my face. I instantly feel ten times better. I feel a rush, not entirely unlike what I felt the day my mother and I left that private club.

       “You know,” Nicole ruminates, “the best way to get close to him is probably to pretend you’re interested in his dick.”

       I shrug, grinning at them. “Revenge as therapy. I don’t hate it. And get this…the guy’s actually a therapist.”

       “I feel the need to point out that actual therapy, with someone other than the man you’re trying to trick, would be less dangerous and more dignified,” Claire says.

       “Probably,” Nicole says with a smirk. “But I’m guessing she’ll never know. And the therapist will be spared thirty-minute long stories about her mother.”

       I shake my head at her, then lift my bottle toward the ceiling and say, “Jake Jeffries, I’m coming for you. You hear me? I’m coming for you.”



Chapter Two



I’m so bored, I’ve been reduced to counting the flecks of peanut shells on the bar top, wondering what would happen if my brother or someone else with a peanut allergy walked into this dump without knowing it was the place that might murder them. We’re just outside of Asheville, so you think they’d have some sort of ordinance about peanuts, but this place is probably intentionally giving the middle finger to tourists and anyone who might give a fuck about trying not to poison people. Maybe I should send the bartender an anonymous EpiPen. Use in case of balloon face.

       Then again, my brother Ryan is an idiot, and it’s his fault that I’m here, listening to Anthony Rosings Smith drone on—his ability to complain seemingly as deep as the Mariana Trench—so maybe I’ll invite Ryan out for a drink as soon as Roark lets him go.

       “You okay, Jake?” Anthony asks, pausing with his beer halfway to his mouth. His brow is furrowed. The look he’s giving me would probably be called patrician. Everything about him, from his expensive hair cut to his houndstooth jacket—which has patches on the elbows—makes him look out of place here. He’s a sore thumb, a hundred dollar bill in a dirty tip jar, and I wonder if he always feels fingers reaching for him.

       I fist my hand under the bar, letting my nails bite into my palm as a reset. I can’t let my mask slip again. That was one of the first rules Roark taught us: Never let your mask slip, usually followed by “dumbass.”

       I grin at Anthony, then slap him on the back like he’s my best buddy old pal. “Never better, my friend, never better. You were telling me about your mother?”

       Anthony runs a hand over his face. “Jesus, when you say it like that… It’s just…you’re easy to talk to, but I didn’t mean to spend the last half hour venting.”

       Yes, he did.

       “Not at all!” I say, lifting my hands, palms out. “My mother’s a pain in the ass too. Always complaining about…”

       Shit, what would a mother always complain about…?

       “She tries to control your love life too?” he asks with understanding.

       I snap my fingers. “Yes, always. Like, find yourself a girlfriend if you feel so strongly about it. She really hated my last girlfriend. Told me I was a fool for choosing her.”

       He smiles, and I feel a smooth certainty slip in—like a fine wine. This is it. It’s time. I’ve built the framework, and now it’s time to slap up the house.

       “You know what, my friend,” I say, nudging his arm. “I’m good at getting to the bottom of problems.”

       “Because you’re a therapist,” he says knowingly.

       I nod, accepting the lie as truth. “Exactly. You said your mom’s having an engagement party for you and your fiancée next Saturday.”

       “She only agreed to it to make a point,” he says darkly. “She’s always trying to make a point about something. And Nina only wants to go because she’s trying to make a point. God only knows what any of it is really about.”

       Man, this guy’s really got the whole poor little rich kid thing going on. I wonder if he’d be making this same argument if he knew my mother took off when Ryan and I were just four, and the only thing I remember about her other than that is the fact that she named us Jake and Ryan after the dumbass main character of Sixteen Candles. Or that the only parental figure who stuck around for more than a year or two is the man who’s currently holding my brother hostage for trying to steal from him.

       I sneak a sidelong glance at Anthony, who probably got a pony for his fourth birthday. Yeah, I’m guessing he’d still complain if he knew. Makes me feel better about playing him at least. That’s rule four or maybe five. Demonize your mark. It helps you strengthen your defenses against them.

        I grin at Anthony like I could honestly think of nothing I’d like more than to sweet-talk another grown man’s mother.

       “Sure, sure,” I say. “Why don’t I come along, see if I can get her to communicate what’s really going on? Wouldn’t that be something?”

       My pulse kicks up. I’ve been working up to this moment for two weeks. If he says no, I’ll be wasting all the groundwork I put in, from running his wallet over to him—after I pickpocketed it—outside the gym to saying I’d only accept a drink as a reward. Not this drink, mind you. No one likes someone who acts too eager, even if they mean it. And if they don’t…well, a person can tell. Maybe not the person sitting next to me, but when I commit to doing a job, I commit to doing it well.

       So this is the third time I’ve had a drink with Anthony Smith. He’s primed…he’s ready…I think.

       A slow grin spreads across Anthony’s face, and I feel a thump of excitement in my chest. I’m in. Success is always a good feeling—like when your number comes up in a game of roulette or four cherries in a row. The bad feelings come later, creeping in at night or on the edges of an otherwise good experience, but this time I’m being an asshole for my brother’s sake. Maybe there won’t be any bad feelings.

       “You’d really do that?” Anthony asks, as if I just offered him a platter of those fish eggs rich people pretend they enjoy.

       “It would be my pleasure to help you and your lovely bride. Besides, I’d like to meet your mother.”

       That part’s not entirely untrue. I’ve heard so much about Mrs. Rosings over the last couple of weeks that it’ll be like coming face to face with a celebrity.

       “Well, okay,” Anthony says with a grin. “It starts at seven o’clock at Smith House. Are you free?”

       Five days from now, because it’s Tuesday evening—the only night Nina could “spare” Anthony this week.

Saturday’s party will be the beginning of the end, thank fuck, because I am beyond done with this situation.

        I make a show of checking my calendar on my phone, then nod. “Yeah, I should be able to swing it.”

       “Thanks so much, man.”

       His phone buzzes from its place on the bar, set out because he probably knew he was going to get summoned. He picks it up, frowning when he sees the screen. “Duty calls.”

       I’m tempted to ask him which of the women who controls him sent the text—his fiancée or his mother—but instead I say,

       “And a true man always answers that call.” I’m laying it on a little thick, but from the look of him, he doesn’t mind.

He gives me one final clap on the back, then slaps some money down and leaves. He’s the one who chose this dump of a bar, and I have to wonder if he picked it because he didn’t want to be seen by anyone he knows. Maybe he wanted free rein to complain about his mother and his fiancée without being overheard. I can’t deny the man has his own gilded problems. Sounds to me like he’s having serious second thoughts about going through with his wedding to his controlling, gold-digging fiancée but would rather die than admit his mother is right. Although I’ve never come close to getting married—no woman in her right mind would want to marry me—I understand the sentiment. I don’t like giving any ground to Roark either. In fact, I’ve done my damn best to break free of him and go legit—working on designing websites freelance—but my brother has unintentionally reeled me back in.

       Sighing, I lean back in my chair and press out a text to Roark: I’ve got an in on Saturday.

       A second passes before a follow-up text comes through. It’s a photo of Ryan sitting on his couch, watching TV. He’s acting like he’s on vacation, not being held hostage, but that’s Ryan for you. If he were careful, he wouldn’t be in this mess. I know Roark enough to understand the threat is still very real—sure, he’s the closest thing we have to a father, but I believe he’ll still hurt Ryan if I don’t come through. “You can do whatever you like, sure,” he used to say, “but there are always consequences.”

       He’s made it clear what the consequences will be this time: steal from me, lose a hand.

       It hasn’t happened yet. But I have no doubt it will if I don’t come through. Sure, Ryan’s bulkier than I am, and he could physically best Roark in hand-to-hand combat, no problem. But Roark has a few very discreet, very unemotional people who work for him, people who aren’t afraid of a little violence. People who have guns.

I’m pissed at my brother, and before all of this went down, I hadn’t talked to him for almost a year, but I’d prefer for him to keep all of his body parts. Besides, I can’t overlook that he was trying to mend our relationship, even if he unintentionally made everything worse.

       I leave the bar and drive to the Airbnb apartment I’ve been renting under my assumed name, ready for a celebratory beer and some down time. I feel myself sighing as I head inside. It looks like a home…someone else’s home. I’d sure as hell never frame “home sweet home” needlework and hang it up next to the door. 

       Still, it’s not a bad place. Too quiet, though. At home, I can hear so much of my neighbors’ bickering that a few weeks ago I knocked on the wall and confirmed that Mick really had said that yesterday—and agreed with his girlfriend that it was uncool of him to have lied about it. Obviously, Mick didn’t find that nearly as amusing as I did, but you can’t please everyone.

       Here, there’s crickets.

       Obviously, it’s better to keep a low profile if you’ve gone somewhere to steal something, but I’m someone who craves noise, bustle, and conversation—even if it’s light and meaningless. Maybe especially if it’s light and meaningless. Because people can’t be trusted, but they can be fun.

       Asheville’s busy enough, but I’ve kept in character. I don’t want to be seen in the wrong places, talking to the wrong people.

       Still…there’s only so much quiet a guy can take. I’ve made some mistakes since arriving in town, including one really bad one, but I won’t be making more of them. As much of a dumbass as my brother is, he’s the only person I’ve allowed to mean anything to me.

       I’ve collected a beer from the fridge and am sitting down with my sketch book and pencils when I hear a knock on the door. My back goes rigid, but I have no reason to worry about anyone coming after me, so I make my way to the door without pocketing my knife.

       When I look out of the peephole, I see a perfect stranger. I know she’s a stranger, because she’s the type of woman a man doesn’t forget—short, wavy black hair, eyes the color of a glass of fine whiskey, and a curvy figure showcased in a red sweater and a pair of shorts so short it looks like they’re about to quit and move to Florida.

       Don’t be stupid, I remind myself. I don’t know if this woman’s here to preach to me about the second coming in an outfit that looks like sin, or if she’s selling chocolate bars or magazine subscriptions no one wants, but I have to send her on her sexy way—even if my natural inclination is to invite her in for a drink. 

       I open the door slightly, nod to her.

       “Hi,” she says, giving me a look that lingers in a few places, sending a warm awareness through me. Then her hands worry at each other, and a little crease forms between her perfect black brows. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but I lost my cat, Professor X. I’ve been going up and down the hall looking for him.”

       I’m not even tempted to ask her if the cat is one of those hairless ones who bears a resemblance to Patrick Stewart. Hearing this woman call me sir from those red-painted lips is nearly a religious experience. “No, sorry,” I say, then cock my head. “I thought no pets were allowed in these units.”

       Not that I give a shit, but it’s always good to know who else is breaking the rules. Leverage isn’t just a big word; it’s a lifeline.

       Her cheeks flush, but she doesn’t look away, holding eye contact like it’s a challenge. It just so happens that I like challenges. They fill my cup. “Are you a man who believes in following the rules?”
      I lean against the door frame, enjoying myself now. “When it suits me.”

       She gives me another assessing look, that blush in her cheeks long gone, and I feel a prickle of something. Interest, sure. Attraction, hell yeah. But this is something else…something I can’t put my finger on. Cocking her curvy hip, she plants a small hand on it—all sass and attitude—and I feel an unwanted appreciation, along with the thought that I’d like to wrap my hand around that hip and squeeze. “And does it suit you to help me look for him before I get into trouble?”

       Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t do anything stupid.

       “If it suits you to have a drink with me afterward,” I say, because I’ve never been very good at listening to sound advice, even if it comes from my own damn brain. “What’s your name, lawbreaker?”

       “Elaine,” she says, holding my gaze. “And yours?”


       Jake’s a common enough name that I usually only change my last name when I’m posing as someone else. It helps when you can respond without the kind of hesitation that could give a person away.

       She nods, then lifts her brows. “No time like the present, Jake.”

       It hits me that she doesn’t seem particularly torn up over this lost Professor X. I’m grateful for that, but at the same time, it feels a little off. A woman who’d bother getting a cat would probably care about it going missing.

I’ve learned to trust my gut, so I ask, “You don’t seem too worried about Professor X.”

       “He has a wanderer’s heart,” she responds. “It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve been careful because this place—” She waves her hands, silently referencing the stringent no-pet policy. “But there’s no keeping him contained. He always comes back, though. Always.”

       “What’s he look like? I need to know so I don’t collar an unsuspecting cat.”

       “He’s all black.”

        My suspicion eases, and the need to not be alone with my thoughts right now is powerful enough that I decide I’m going to do it, consequences be damned. 

“Just a second.” I dip inside to grab my keys, then lock the door behind me while Elaine watches.

       “Are you from a big city?” she asks, her voice a little low and throaty, like she should be singing in a lounge somewhere.

       I pocket the keys. “It’s not that,” I say, sidestepping the question. “I just don’t believe in asking for trouble. My buddy here told me the cops don’t respond much to B&Es.”

       “Or lost cats who aren’t supposed to exist,” she says with another half-smile that would make Mona Lisa jealous.

       I glance down the hall, taking stock. My apartment’s the last on the left. “So have you already checked in with everyone, or do you have one apartment left?” I motion to the place across the hall. It’s occupied by an elderly, half deaf man who tells me the same joke every time I see him. Where do pencils go on vacation? Pennsylvania. I figure he doesn’t get many sympathy laughs in his day-to-day, so I always give him a good one and offer him a beer. He accepted one time, and we had a twenty minute bitch-fest about traffic that was more engaging than anything Anthony Rosings Smith has ever said to me.

       If I said that to Ryan, he’d shake his head and tell me that I have a chip on my shoulder about rich people. He’d also tell me it’s ridiculous to have it out for the kind of people I’d love to become. Fair point.

       “I haven’t stopped by that one yet,” Elaine confirms, “and then I was going to check the stairwell, maybe, and look around outside the building.”

       I have a feeling she’s not going to see this cat until he wants to be seen, but I’m not too fussed about finding him. I want the company. The enjoyment and distraction of being out with a beautiful woman instead of stowed away in my box for the night.

       She’s your neighbor, you idiot. Abort. Abort.

       At the same time…I’m only going to have to be here for another week or so, right? What’s the harm in having a little fun?

       And, sure, maybe that attitude is exactly what got Ryan into trouble in the first place, but we’re not brothers for nothing.



Chapter Three



If you pretend you have a pet, people are more likely to trust you. Pretend you’re looking for that pet, and they’ll probably offer to help you.

       Yes, I know that sounds horrible. It is horrible.

       It’s a ruse my parents have used to introduce themselves to important people, and they formed a friendship with a couple who brought us to the Hamptons one summer.

       I decided to pretend I’m Jake’s neighbor for a couple of reasons.

       Reason One: Cleo told me Jake has only lived in this place for a few weeks, so logic suggests he hasn’t had a chance to meet all of his neighbors.

       Reason Two: People are more likely to invite a neighbor into their apartment, and I need to get in there if I’m going to retrieve her necklace. It’s not exactly safe to go inside a strange man’s apartment, but I have mace and a Bowie knife and years of self-defense training. Besides, Nicole is my getaway driver and knows where I am. If he tries to cross me, he’ll regret it.

       Jake’s certainly an attractive, charming devil, not that I’d expected anything different. Cleo had texted me a photo of him—slightly curly brown hair, light hazel eyes with long black lashes, and a tattoo of a fox made of fire on his forearm. He’s drunk in the photo, judging by his bleary expression. I’ve looked at it a lot over the last few days, preparing for this moment.

       He looks exactly like he did in the photo, and yet he doesn’t…

       He’s got more…vitality, I guess. Everything about him seems alive, from the dancing flames on his intricately designed tattoo to his fit, muscular body and the mischief dancing in his eyes. It lights him up from within, making it hard to look away.

       Or maybe it’s the fires of hell that light him up.

       Men like him have a seductive power, and after being in Jake’s presence for twenty minutes, I’m positive he knows it and twists it to his advantage.

       The only surprise so far was his rapport with his elderly neighbor, a grizzled man with wispy white hair and pitch-dark eyes who introduced himself as Mr. Tim. Jake clapped the old guy on the back, and they told each other terrible dad jokes. It was, I regret to admit, adorable. But for all I know, he’s been stealing the guy’s social security checks on the sly.

       Jake sneaks another glance at me as we leave Mr. Tim’s closed door and enter the stairwell. “Interesting name for a cat. Are you an X-Men fan?” he asks as I pretend to glance around for the fictional cat.

       “I liked the comics when I was a kid,” I tell him as we descend the stairs. When we reach the bottom, I peer around the small, decidedly empty space before reaching for the door handle. “I enjoyed imagining I was a mutant,” I say as I open the door and step into the alley beside the building, Jake following me.

       I’m not lying. I did like it. I normally felt like a cog in my parents’ plans, but Lainey with X powers was in control.

       “Me too,” he says with a grin as the door clicks into place behind us. “My favorite character was Gambit.”

       I contain a snort. Of course he prefers the character who was a notorious thief. Not that I can talk…Gambit is my favorite too. I liked the thought that someone who was a villain could also be a bit of a hero—that we’re not destined to only be the worst parts of ourselves.

       “Let me guess,” I say, clearing my throat. “Do you like playing cards?”

       “Sure,” he says, his grin spreading wider. “I like it a lot when I’m winning. The secret is knowing when to stop playing. My brother’s never figured that out.”

       “You have a brother?”

       He nods, glancing around, and I remember I’m supposed to be looking for my fictional cat. “Let’s check out the area near the trash bin,” I say, gesturing to the huge black dumpster in the alley. “Professor X has a thing for rotting garbage. It’s the feline in him.”

       If he’s disgusted by the thought of hanging out by a pile of trash on a hotter-than-usual October day, he doesn’t let on. He strolls by my side, his pace easy and his stride confident, then says, “You got any siblings?”
      “No, it was just me,” I say, realizing belatedly that I could have made up a passel of brothers and sisters for “Elaine.” Then again, it’s always easier to stick to the truth so long as you don’t dole out identifying details. There’s also something surprisingly freeing about talking to a stranger, someone you’re never going to see again. “But I have a close childhood friend. I used to pretend she was my sister.” And also that her sweet-as-pie father was my father, but I don’t add that. I haven’t even told Claire. Jealousy isn’t the kind of feeling you should ever admit to, according to my mother. It’s something to act on, not get lost in.

       He gives me another sidelong look, pausing, which prompts me to stop moving and turn toward him. His gaze moves slowly over my face, sending awareness in its path. Then he surprises me by slowly reaching up. I’m not sure what he intends at first, but he tucks my hair behind my ear, curling his fingers briefly around my ear. My breath catches, and an almost painful zing of awareness shoots through me. It’s…disarming, but it’s been a long time since a man’s touched me; that’s all.

       “I get it,” he says softly. “My brother’s a bit of an idiot, but I don’t know who I’d be without him. He keeps me grounded.”

       My mouth drops open, because I’m taken aback. I didn’t expect him to have a sensitive side, but maybe he’s just throwing out a lure to pull me in for that drink he requested.

       Then something furry brushes against my legs. The only furry things to have ever unexpectedly brushed against my legs in New York City were rodents the size of domesticated pets, so I scream. And practically leap at Jake, who reflexively wraps his arm around me, pinning me to his hard, hot chest.

       “What is it?” he asks, his tone urgent, his breath at my ear, and even though my nerves are still as raw as if someone took a cheese grater to them, I feel a hot shiver run through my body. I lean in closer—for protection, obviously, and also so we present a larger target.

       “A rat,” I say, my voice breathy. “It brushed against my leg.”

       Even as I report this gruesome fact, there’s another brush of fur against my bare leg. I yelp again, but this time I look down—and see a black cat rubbing against my leg.


       My brain takes two seconds to absorb a few facts. Fact One: the cat’s wearing a filthy red collar with no tag. Fact Two: the cat looks like he hasn’t had a good meal in at least two weeks. He’s either a stray or on one hell of a walkabout. Fact Three: the cat meets the description I gave earlier, and he’s acting like I’m made of catnip. If I claim he’s not mine, Jake will be suspicious. But if I claim he is, he might assume I’m a jerk who doesn’t feed her cat…or suggest that I bring him home before coming over for that drink he promised me. I’d have nowhere to bring him but back out here, and if he’s really a stray, he might need some help, and—

       Jake has released me and is looking down at the cat expectantly, and I know I need to do something…

       “Professor X,” I croon, getting down on my haunches to pet the cat. “Mommy didn’t realize it was you.” In my peripheral vision, I can see Jake making a face, and I almost laugh. I’ve been overdoing it, but I feel the perverse urge to dial it up rather than down—to toy with Jake to see how he reacts. “Oh thank goodness, my widdle mister, Mommy was so worried this time, but you always come back to me, my baby boy, don’t you, my darling?”

       The look on Jake’s face…

He’s not even bothering to hide his reaction now. He’s watching me and the cat with horrified fascination.

       I try to hold it together, but I can’t help it, I burst out laughing, and the cat leaps up onto my bent legs. He’s small, but the maneuver catches me off-guard, so I land on my ass on the smelly pavement near the trash dumpster, laughing, the cat clutched in my arms. The absurdity only makes me laugh harder.

       I used to be good at this kind of stuff, but I’m not anymore. I’m glad I’m not. But it’s inconvenient at this particular moment.

       Jake looks surprised, understandably, then he reaches for the cat and says, “Let me help you up, Catwoman,” followed by a smirky smile that’s hard to look away from, damn him.

       I hand him the black cat presently known as Professor X, and he cradles him to his hard chest, holding out his other hand to me. I let him pull me up, trying not to feel too grateful for the assist—or to notice that he has nice, strong hands. Capable hands.

       He’s an asshole. A liar and a thief. He’s only helping you because he wants something.

       The something he wants is me—and I can’t deny that thought is a little…exciting, even if I have no intention of giving myself to him.

       I bolster myself against his smile, against the moment of shared humor. You can get along with anyone for twenty seconds. It doesn’t mean they’re a person worth knowing.

       “You had me going for a minute, you know,” he says, handing Professor X back to me gently, his hand brushing my arm. Another hot shiver has the nerve to work its way through me, especially when Jake meets my gaze, his eyes still full of mirth. I pointedly look away.

       The cat surprises me by nuzzling his furry little head under my chin. I’m surprised by the heat building behind my eyes, the warm emotion drowning my chest. It’s just…

       I never had any pets growing up, but I’d always wanted one. Someone to take care of. Someone who’d love me no matter what and demand nothing in return. That was the precise reason my parents had said pets were a waste—you give and give and give and they couldn’t ever return on the investment.

       Because love didn’t have any value on its own.

       Coughing the emotion out of my throat, I say, “I’m very fond of my cat.” 


       “I color coordinate my outfits to his collars.”

       For a second, he looks uncertain again, like he can’t tell whether he’s in the presence of a psychopath or a person with a twisted sense of humor, and then a sparkle lights up his pretty eyes. “No, you don’t. You’re fucking with me.”

       “So why’s he wearing a red collar?” I ask.


       “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

       That’s true, mostly. Except…

       The cat in my arms seems like a coincidence.

       At the same time, there are any number of stray cats in Asheville. There’s even a Facebook group called Asheville Cat Weirdos. I know this because I infiltrated it to get the goods on a woman who’d stolen her girlfriend’s cat.

       “But do you believe in keeping your promises?” Jake asks.

       I can tell where this is going. He’s going to ask me upstairs for a drink. While that’s exactly what needs to happen, I can’t deny there’s a stubborn part of me that wants to laugh in his face again. He may seem funny and charming, and there’s no denying he’s very attractive, but he’s wearing a mask as surely as I am. I know what he did to Cleo. I know who he is at his core—rotten. Wrong.

       A little bit like you, a voice in my head whispers.

       But I straighten my spine and tell that voice to keep its unsolicited opinions to itself.

       “It just so happens that I do,” I tell him brightly. But the little cat rubs his head against my chin again, and I register that the hand holding him to my chest can feel his ribs.

       Nicole would tell me not to be an idiot, but I can’t let this cat starve. He may not be my “Widdle Mister,” but he deserves more.

       “I need to feed my cat first.”

       I don’t have a plan for that, but I’m a reasonably intelligent woman. Surely, I can figure something out.

       He rubs his chin, then says, “There are a few cans of cat food under my sink. You’re welcome to them.”

       “You have a cat too?”

       He shakes his head. “It’s a short-term rental. My best guess is that some rulebreaker left them in there, and the cleaning service didn’t find them. There’s also enough single-serving condiments to either make a person really sad or stock a Wendy’s.” He inclines his head. “I guess they could do both at the same time.”

       This is good. This lets me stick to the plan. But I have a strange feeling of misgiving. My gut tells me something is off, but I can’t decide what unless it’s the unexpected presence of this cat.

       As we get close to the door leading into the building, I fuss over Professor X so Jake will know it’s on him to take out his key card. But I make sure to reach the door first, because I don’t want him to think I’m hesitating for any reason other than that I don’t want to let go of the cat.

       Jake doesn’t seem to notice, easily slipping ahead and using his key card. We walk upstairs companionably, but I notice the way he’s eying the cat. Professor X has one ragged ear, and he’s skinny and gangly. My mark is probably wondering why someone who makes such a show of caring for her cat is neglectful, which makes me feel like a jerk even though Professor X isn’t my cat—or wasn’t until today. After I leave, I’m going to make sure to look for his people, and if I can’t find them, I’ll be his person.

       The thought fills me with a warm glow, even if I’m not sure how I’ll make my getaway with an unexpected sidekick.

       “He been gone for a while?” Jake finally says as we reach his door.

       I look down at his matted little head. “No.” I adopt a grave tone. “He’s just sick.”

       I feel like I’m cursing poor Professor X by implying he has a serious illness, but surely Jake will stop asking questions if he thinks my friend is on death’s doorstep.

       “What kind of sickness?” he asks, proving that an asshole will do whatever it is he wants. He unlocks the door and waits for me to step inside. I do and glance back as he follows me in and shuts the door behind him.

       Frowning at him from over the cat’s head, I say in an undertone, “I don’t like discussing it in front of him.”

       Two minutes too late, it occurs to me that I should have told him that I’d only adopted Professor X a couple of weeks ago, which would have been a much more convincing story.

       Jake lifts his eyebrows, probably teetering back toward his “she’s crazy” estimation, then says, “You can take a look at the containers of food under the sink. See if there’s something you think he’ll eat.”

       Probably every last can Jake has, and the sink too, but I just set the little cat down, and he follows me into the kitchen.

       “Would you like a beer?” Jake asks as he enters the kitchen behind us—it’s open concept, so I guess we were technically in the kitchen as soon as we entered the apartment. That makes things easier, because I won’t have to struggle to pretend I’m familiar with the layout of the apartments in this building.

       Cleo told me she thinks he’d keep the necklace in his bedroom, and I have to agree. It’s the only really private place in here, other than the bathroom, and most people wouldn’t keep valuable belongings next to the toilet.

Which means I have to think of some excuse to go in the bedroom. By myself.

       I glance down at my red sweater, covered in cat hair, and think, You were a good sweater, and you didn’t deserve this. But we all have a part to play. 

       “I’d love a beer,” I say brightly. “Thank you so much.”

       In truth, I don’t love beer, other than some of the fruity flavors a few of the breweries around here have gotten creative with, but I won’t be drinking much of it anyway.

       I pull out the cans of food, and Professor X gives an excited yowl and scratches at them. So I open three and set them out in a row, and he’s finished the third one before Jake can even pop the tops on the bottles of beer.

       He takes in the scene without comment, but I see the questions forming behind his eyes. Not good. I have to speed this mess up. Still, the cat’s mewing, so I open a fourth container, then grab a bowl from the drying rack next to the sink and fill it with water, setting that out too.

       Jake hands me one of the beers, his gaze a little shuttered. I can’t imagine what he suspects, but I have a feeling he hasn’t caught on that his ex-girlfriend hired me to steal back the necklace he took from her, so at least I have that going for me.

       “Shall we sit on the couch?” I suggest.

       “Sure,” he says, leading the way—and my traitorous eyes dip from his broad shoulders down to his ass. He’s several inches taller than me but not huge, like Declan and Damien, and he fills his clothes out well. So what? The same could be said for bodybuilders with protein powder for brains. He certainly doesn’t deserve any props for being good-looking and making the most of what genetics gave him.

       We settle onto the couch, Jake a few inches away from me, and it’s only then I realize I forgot to take the beer. I’m off-kilter. Unbalanced. Maybe that’s because of the way he’s sitting—so damn close, his thighs angled toward me, his knee almost touching mine. One arm is stretched over the back of the sofa, his fingers close enough to burrow into my hair.

       I take a deep breath to settle myself, ignoring the prickling sensation across my exposed skin and the warmth that seems to radiate from him.

       My gaze lands on the coffee table. There’s a sketchbook on it, a pencil layered across the top.

       “Oh, do you draw?”

       “It’s nothing,” he says. Setting down his beer, he moves his other arm—the one that was nearly wrapped around me—and reaches for the book. He goes to stuff it into the drawer of the plain but serviceable end table next to the couch. But Professor X appears from nowhere like an avenging angel and takes a swat at it.

       Jake swears and fumbles the sketchpad, and it falls open on the floor, revealing a hand drawn comic that makes me gasp. I see two little boys with curly hair in one panel, and a pair of foxes covered with fire in the next.

       “That’s really good,” I say, surprised.

       I’ve never seen such detailed pencil drawings in person before. I want a better look at it, but judging by the way he’s already slapping it shut, he’s not up for sharing. I study him with interest as he tucks the pad away. He’s upset and showing it. For only the second time since I knocked on his door, I feel like I’m seeing something real from him. The first was just before I ended up on my ass next to the dumpster.

       “They’re only doodles,” he lies.

       And there the moment ends. Rest in peace, moment of truth, you were good while you lasted.

       “Cool,” I say, raising my eyebrows. “I like putting dumb little doodles together too when I’m on the phone.”

       Get it together, Lainey. Stop antagonizing the man.

       But I can’t seem to help myself. I take a minute to consider why, and come to an unwelcome conclusion. I’m doing it because I find Jake attractive, and just now, I found him a little interesting too.

       I tell myself it’s no big deal, because I’d probably find a mop attractive right now—if it had a vibrator attached. It’s been a long time since I had sex, and much, much longer since it made me come. A good session with my vibrator is all it takes to send me over the edge. But Todd never did. He was a rich, attractive, white man, he was used to pleasing people simply by existing. So even though he had a big dick, he absolutely did not know how to use it.

       I was also hyper-aware of everything I did when I was with him. Which angles were best for my face, my breasts. Which sounds he found the most appealing. I could never lose myself in the moment. The stakes felt too high. I’d decided to marry him, and I’d gotten lost in that goal, to the point where everything I did was about placating or impressing him.

       So here I am, sexually starved, sitting next to a very attractive man whose opinion I couldn’t care less about. It’s natural I feel a little drawn in by him.

       But I can’t forget why I’m here. So I offer him a big smile. “What do you do for a living, handsome?”

       He’s watching me a little warily, which isn’t great, but I still can turn this around.

       “I’m a therapist.”

       I nearly snort on the sip of beer I just took, but I clap myself on the chest and say, “Sorry, went down the wrong way.”

       He angles his head. “I haven’t seen you around the building before.”

       “I like to keep to myself, usually. I’m reserved.”

       The doubtful look on his face says it all.

       “Around most people,” I add flirtatiously, batting my lashes at him. “I feel very comfortable around you.”

       Something flickers in his gaze. He’s not buying it.

       Professor X strolls back into view with a tuft of feathers he got from who knows where—possibly a pillow he decimated within the last five minutes—and then rolls onto his back right in front of us, giving us a good view of his—erm—her privates.

       Jake frowns. “Is that cat…female?”

       I don’t think, I just lean over and kiss him.

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