This is the start of the discovery draft of a companion novella to “Hot Toy,” a Christmas novella I wrote several years ago. I started it because I really loved the heroine’s sister from “Hot Toy.” It’s resting in pieces at the moment, but eventually I’ll figure out a plot and finish it.
Courtney Maxwell was putting the Felici watches in their cases when she realized her hands were shaking. Well, that was what rage did for you. And frustration. And fear—
“Honey, this is your song,” Henry, the security guard, said, sounding like a fond grandpa as Laura Nyro started singing “Wedding Bell Blues” on the shop stereo.
“I’m never getting married again.” Courtney snapped the lid closed on the last box. “I hate all males. Except for you. And Leroy. I love my kid and you. After that . . .” She took a deep breath. “My next job, I want a female manager.”
“Jordan being a bastard?” Henry said, his deep voice deeper with sympathy.
“He said one more mistake and I’m fired.” Courtney put her palms flat on the glass case in front of her and looked down at the array of diamonds below.
“You don’t make mistakes,” Henry said.
“Jordan makes mistakes and blames them on me. But trying telling Jordan that.”
On the store stereo, Laura sang to Bill that she’d been on his side when he’d been losing. That would be good, to have somebody on her side against Jordan. Actually, not losing would be good for a change, too.
She looked up and met Henry’s eyes. “I’m going to lose this job.”
“No, I won’t let that happen,” Henry said, as if that settled it.
Courtney smiled in spite of herself. She had Henry on her side. Sixty-eight-year-old, big-as-a-bear, recovering-from-a-heart-attack Henry. That really was something.
“Come on, sing it,” Henry said, holding out his arms, and she laughed and went around the corner of the display case, and let him dance her across the polished floor of the little jewelry store. He was impossible to resist even though his dancing was closer to lumbering-in-time, so she sang with him that she was the one who’d come running when he was lonely, belting out “Come on and marry me, Bill!” loudly and off key.
When she stopped laughing, she realized there was somebody knocking on the massive wood door to the shop. She turned to look and there was a guy there, smiling and waving at them through the small bullet-proof window, broad-faced and curly haired, the boy-next-door made flesh.
“See, you sing it and it happens,” Henry said to her. “Positive singing. This might be the guy.”
“There is no guy,” Courtney said, her happiness evaporating. “Especially one that shows up after closing.”
On the stereo, Nyro moved on to “Stoney End,” which was much more appropriate.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” Courtney called to the guy and went back to the counter to put the Felicis in the small safe. Junk, she thought as she stacked the boxes, no matter what Jordan said. “It takes a certain level of taste to appreciate these, Courtney,” he’d said. “These are ten thousand dollar watches.” Fuck you, Jordan, shoddy craftsmanship is junk no matter what they cost.
Jordan didn’t like Laura Nyro, either, which told you everything you needed to know about Jordan.
The guy knocked again. She shook her head at him in the universal We’re closed, go away sign, but he didn’t leave.
“Persistent,” Henry said. “Good smile. Maybe his name’s Bill. That would be a sign. Go for it.”
“I’m not letting him in. He comes in here, something goes wrong, and Jordan fires me for breaking the rules. I’m not losing this job just because some guy can’t read a ‘Closed’ sign.”
“We don’t have a ‘Closed’ sign,” Henry said, “and Jordan’s a dope.”
The guy knocked again, and Courtney said, “No!” and glared at him.
He opened the door and came in.
“What the hell?” Courtney said and looked at Henry.
Henry had his hand on his gun, his face grim, as the guy closed the door behind him. “I locked that door. You have about ten seconds to get out of here, buddy.”
The guy flipped the lock on the door and raised a gun from under his coat. “Really sorry about this.”
“That’s it,” Henry said, and lifted his gun.
“No!” Courtney lunged between them, spreading her arms out, terrified and enraged all over again. “No, you will not shoot Henry, he’s a grandfather! And I’m a single mother!”
The guy looked at her in disbelief. “Do I look like I’m interested in the demographics here?”
Courtney backed up until she was against Henry, keeping her arms out. “Don’t shoot Henry. I mean it. You drop that gun right now, mister.”
The guy sighed. “Henry, put your gun on the floor and kick it to me, and I won’t shoot you.”
“Hell, no,” Henry said, calm as ever.
“Henry, give him the damn gun,” Courtney said, glaring at the intruder. “I am not explaining your bullet-ridden body to Junie, and I’m sure as hell not leaving Leroy an orphan.”
“It’s my gun,” Henry said.
Courtney closed her eyes, exasperation cutting through her fear. “Henry, kick that damn gun over to this jackass, or I will never speak to you again. Assuming I make it through this.”
Henry hesitated, and the jackass said, “Henry, kick it over here or I shoot the single mother.”
Henry put the gun on the floor and kicked across, and the jackass picked it up and put it in his jacket.
Courtney put her arms down. “You’re going to hell,” she told the jackass.
“No doubt about it.” The guy reached in his jacket and pulled out white cable ties. “Now tie Henry’s hands behind his back so he doesn’t change his mind.”
“Henry’s got a heart condition,” Courtney said, putting as much outrage as possible in her voice.
“I do not,” Henry said, disgusted.
“Henry, you just had a damn bypass.”
“So, it’s fixed,” Henry said. “I’m not weak.”
“You’re not helping,” Courtney snapped.
She took the ties, glaring at the jackass, and then over to Henry. “Do you have a plan?” she whispered to him as she tied his hands as loosely as possible in front of him.
“Back door,” Henry whispered back. “I’ll distract him, you run for it.”
“No whispering,” the jackass said. “And I said in the back.”
“No, that’s too much stress,” Courtney said. “Pulling his arms back like that. He’s an old man.”
“Ain’t that damn old,” Henry said.
Courtney glared at him, giving the tie a final tug, keeping all her fingers inside so the plastic stayed loose. “You go,” she whispered. “Carefully.” She turned back to the jackass. “Now what?”
He waved the gun toward the back of the shop. “Now we go to the vault.”
“Vault?” Courtney said. How does he know about the vault? “You mean the safe? Of course. But I think Henry should sit down–” She guided Henry, around the counter and toward the stool by the storeroom door and escape. “—because of his bad heart–”
“My heart’s just fine,” Henry said.
“Shut up, Henry.” Courtney sat him down on the stool, reaching under the counter to hit the panic button, and then jumped when somebody knocked on the door.
“We gotta get a ‘Closed’ sign,” Henry said.
“You expecting somebody?” the jackass said.
Yes, the cops, now that I’ve pushed the button, but not that fast.
Courtney squinted through the window. Whoever this one was, he was tall, dark, and kind of dorky-looking. “Yes. That’s my fiancé. Bill. I’d leave if I were you. Bill knows krav maga.”
“Get rid of him,” the jackass said, “or he’ll know bullet holes.”
“Right.” Courtney waved the guy at the door away, calling out, “I have to work late, Bill. You go on without me.” Get out of here before you get caught in the crossfire between the jackass and the cops.
The guy at the door knocked again.
“No, really, later,” she yelled again and waved him away with more enthusiasm.
The guy turned the knob and walked in.
“I locked that door,” the jackass said, raising his gun again.
“Hi, honey,” the new guy said, all cheekbones and chin, looking cheerfully deranged as he ignored the jackass and put his arm around her. “I’m home.” He bent down and kissed her on the cheek, and Courtney stared up at him speechless.
“So you’re the boyfriend,” the jackass said. “Bad news: your relationship just hit a bump.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” the new guy said. “We’ve been going along, everything fine . . .” He leaned closer to the jackass. “. . . the sex is great!”
“Excuse me.” Courtney tried to get out from under his arm, but he had a grip like a python.
“But we’re kind of stuck, so I came on down tonight because I think it’s time we took it to the next level–” He beamed down at Courtney. “—so how about it, honey, let’s pick out a ring and make it official. ” He looked back at the jackass. “That’ll make her mother happy. You would not believe that woman–”
“Shut. Up.” The jackass raised his gun higher, and the new guy stopped.
“Oh. Wow.” He looked down at her again. “Honey, I think you’re being robbed.”
“Yes,” Courtney said, trying to think of her next move. I’m trapped in a store after hours with a heart patient, an armed robber, and a lunatic, so the best thing to do is . . .
“You okay, honey?” the new guy said to her.
A heart patient, an armed robber, and a lunatic walk into a bar . . .
“Courtney?” Henry said, sounding concerned.
“I’m having an odd evening,” Courtney said.
“Try mine,” the jackass said. “Okay, what’s-your-name—“
“Bill,” the new guy said.
“Ha!” Henry said.
Shut up and escape, Henry.
The jackass nodded. “Fine. Take off your jacket, Bill. Slowly.”
“You bet,” Bill said, letting go of her. He shrugged off his jacket, stepping in front of her as he held it out to the jackass. “Here you go.”
“Drop it,” the jackass said, and Bill dropped the jacket while Courtney tried to see around him.
She glared at Henry and jerked her head toward the storeroom, hoping Bill was enough of a screen that the jackass couldn’t see her.
Henry sighed and stood up, silently.
“Okay,” the jackass said, taking cable ties out of his pocket. “Let’s do this again. Tie up Bill. Arms behind his back.”
Bill looked down at her and grinned. “We’ve never done this before.”
“And we never will again,” Courtney said, and reached around him to take the ties.
This time she tied them tightly. Bill might be a great shield, but he was also nuts. Plus he’d opened a locked door. It didn’t matter. Whatever the hell was going on, she had to get Henry out the door before his heart imploded again. And then she’d give the jackass whatever he wanted and pray he didn’t shoot her. Maybe if she kept Bill in front of her . . .
“The vault,” the jackass said, and Courtney thought, If he knows there’s a vault, there’s no point in denying it, it’ll only annoy him.
“Right,” she said and moved toward the other side of the store, drawing the jackass away from Henry and the storeroom.
“Hold it,” the jackass said, and she turned and bumped her nose on Bill’s shirt front. “Bill, you’re not going with us.”
Bill smiled down at her, his face all planes and angles in the reflected light from the diamond case. “Can’t leave my woman alone with a guy with a gun.”
“If I shoot you, she’ll be alone forever,” the jackass said.
Bill kept his eyes on Courtney’s face, steady and sure. “If you shoot me, you’ll go down for murder. Doesn’t seem like your style.”
“This was supposed to be a simple job,” the jackass said, but he sounded philosophical about it. “Okay, protect your woman, Bill, but do not get in my way.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Bill said. “Go open the vault, honey.”
Oh, good: more men telling her what to do. And then Jordan would fire her.
The stereo fell silent and then Nyro began to sing again. “Gonna Take A Miracle” this time.
“Laura Nyro,” Bill said. “Gotta love her.”
“Who’s Laura Nyro?” the jackass said.
“Great singer-songwriter,” Courtney said, carefully not looking at Henry. “You probably heard her big hit, ‘Get the Hell Out of Here Now’?”
“No,” the jackass said. “The vault. Now.”
“You can do it, honey.” Bill pushed his body against hers to move her, and she turned and walked back to the vault, stealing a glance at the storeroom door.
Henry was gone.
She took a deep breath and relaxed. “I don’t even know why you’re robbing us,” she said to the jackass to keep him distracted. “There are a lot bigger jewelry stores. We’re just a little hole in the wall. We can’t even afford a ‘Closed’ sign.”
“Really?” the jackass said. “What a shame. Still, might as well look as long as I’m here.”
Courtney reached the curtain to the vault room, pulled it aside, and bent down to turn the handle, feeling Bill move around behind her, exposing her to the jackass. So much for Bill the Hero. His name probably wasn’t even Bill.
“Open it,” the jackass said, his voice sharp, and Courtney said, “Fine.”
She pulled the door open and then stumbled as Bill shoved her inside and slammed the door behind them.
She turned and stared at him in disbelief. She’d tied his damn hands and there he was with both of them free, and they were both inside the vault, and now her best case scenario was that a bad guy with a gun was about to meet the slowest cops in the city while she was trapped all night in a vintage vault with a crazy person.
“Why?” she said to him. “Why, why,why, WHY?”
“You didn’t want to get robbed, did you?” Bill said.
“I didn’t care,” Courtney raged. “I just didn’t want Henry to have a heart attack. And now he’s out there with an armed jackass, and we’re trapped in here. And I tied your hands. How the hell did you get out of that?”
“Swiss Army knife,” Bill said. “Be prepared. Look, when the cops come, they’ll let us out–”
“No,” Courtney said. “The only person who can let us out is the manager, Jordan. He’s visiting his mother in Pennsylvania. He’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“Oh,” Bill said, looking around. “This vault have a bathroom?”
“Oh, god.” Courtney let herself slide down the vault wall to the floor.
“I mean, I’m okay, I went before I came in, but you–”
“Shut up, Bill.”
“My name’s not Bill.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Courtney said and closed her eyes and tried to think.
Tennyson Dempsey liked simple plans, so he’d made one, and now it was all going to hell.
Colin Brennan probably wouldn’t have hurt the old man or the redhead, he was a decent sort, but Tenn hadn’t been sure enough when he’d seen Colin show up on the store’s security monitor to not intervene.
He watched the redhead now as she leaned her head against the wall of antique safety deposit boxes and seethed. Of course, now he knew it was a lot more likely that she would have shot Colin rather than the other way around, but when he’d gone down and knocked on the door, she’d just looked panicked and vulnerable, a mass of red curls and full curves in her plain little black dress, looking through the window at him, her big brown eyes saying, Save me. Or maybe that had been Call the cops. She didn’t seem like somebody who said “Save me” a lot. Or at all.
And now, after ten minutes of furious silence, she was glaring up at him from the floor, her arms folded under her curves and her great legs stretched out in front of her, which means she probably wasn’t going to help him steal the Egg, either.
He sat down across from her. “My name’s Tennyson.”
“Your name’s mud. When the manager opens up this vault tomorrow, he’s going to have cops with him.”
Tenn spread his arms out. “I haven’t done anything.”
“You were planning to.”
“That’s not against the law.”
She cocked her head to one side, and her curls shifted, a riot of ringlets. “I give you points for not denying it.”
“Two different guys show up after closing the first night the Egg is in your vault? I’d be suspicious, too.”
“You can’t have it,” she said, without malice.
“Why do you care?” he asked, genuinely curious. “This place has to be insured.”
She hesitated and looked away and then back at him, and he waited for the lie.
“I don’t like men taking things from me,” she said, and it sounded like the truth. “I especially don’t like men who take what they want and then leave me to clean up after them,” and Tenn thought, Oh, hell, one of those. “But mostly, I don’t like men who threaten to shoot me and Henry.”
“In his defense, it was probably the only way to get the Egg,” Tenn said. “You weren’t going to just give it to him when he said please.”
“He wouldn’t have said ‘please.’”
“He might have. He’s generally a nice guy.”
She straightened. “I knew it. You’re working together!”
“No.” Tenn smiled at her again, and she scowled harder. “We once ran in the same circles.”
“So he knew you weren’t Bill.”
“I don’t know. It’s been awhile and we were never close. I probably know more about him than he does about me. But he wouldn’t have killed you. Might have shot Henry in the foot, but he’s not a killer.”
“Oh well, good for him.” She sat back, her arms clutched even more firmly under her breasts.
“So we really are in here all night?” he said, trying to keep his eyes on her face.
“Yes, we really are.” She sighed again, and he thought, Clean thoughts, clean thoughts, you’re on the job.
“What’s your name?” he said, and when she glared again, he added, “We’re going to be in here all night. I told you mine.” He smiled again which only seemed to make her angrier. That was new. Come on, he thought, people like this face. Smile back.
“Courtney,” she said finally, still not smiling.
He waited, but she didn’t give up her last name. Cautious. Smart. Better than smart, quick-thinking. Strong. Brave in the face of unknown men with unknown agendas. “Pretty impressive, Courtney.”
“What?” she said, her voice hard.
“Two different master thieves break into your shop and you foil them both.”
“Save the butter.”
“I am surprised you left Henry out there.”
“Henry’s long gone out the back door. The cops are probably out there now.”
“Henry’s probably still there,” Tenn said. “If I were Colin, I’d have locked it first.”
She shook her head. “Nobody knows about the back door, it’s behind a cabinet. Henry was on his way out before we got to the vault door.”
“I knew about it,” Tenn said. “And if I do, Colin does.”
She straightened then, color draining from her face. “Henry could be out there with that jackass?”
“He won’t shoot him,” Tenn said, pretty sure he wouldn’t. “Colin’s a lot of things, but he’s not a killer.”
“Henry’s seen his face,” she said, panic in her voice again.
“A lot of people have seen Colin’s face. He’s very good at being somewhere else when they come looking. He won’t shoot Henry.”
She sat back again, unconvinced, but her hands were clasped loosely in her lap now. She wasn’t protecting herself from him any more. Progress.
“What are they doing then?”
“Probably talking about soccer while Colin opens your safe for spending money.”
“I locked the safe.”
“It’s a 1920 Stuart-Ohlrogge. Colin could open it in thirty seconds without concentrating.”
“How the hell did you know about the safe?” she said, sitting up again.
“Everybody knows that. This is one of the most cased jewelry stores on the east coast.”
“They couldn’t have known about the back door. Jordan doesn’t know about the back door.”
“The manager. How do you know about the back door?”
“How do you?” Tenn said, genuinely curious.
“Henry found it. How do you know?”
“And how did you get those?”
“Let’s talk about you,” Tenn said, smiling.
“Let’s not,” Courtney said. “And you can stop flashing that smile at me, I’m through with that crap.”
“Smiling men who coast through life on charm.”
“I do not coast,” Tenn said.
“Then what’s with the hi-how-ya-doin’ smile you keep hitting me with?”
Tenn shrugged. “You’re a pretty girl. I’m a guy who likes to smile at pretty girls.”
“I’m thirty-five, so I’m not a girl. And you want something.”
Tenn gave up. “Honey, every guy who meets you wants something. Which you know because you’re not dressed in a burlap bag.”
Courtney glared at him. “This is what I’m supposed to wear to work. Basic black dress.”
“That shows off your great legs.”
She yanked her skirt down as far as it would go, which fortunately wasn’t far. “This is not how I dress at home.”
“It is how you dress to meet people,” Tenn said. “You may have to wear black at the office, but you don’t have to wear hot black.”
“This isn’t hot black, this is . . . Chanel black. Little black dress black. Classic black.”
Tenn shrugged. “Classic black is hot.”
She started to say something and stopped, looking at him without glaring for a change.
“What?” Tenn said.
“You’re good. We just spend three minutes on my wardrobe instead of discussing how the hell you know so much about this store.”
Tenn grinned, he couldn’t help it, and to his amazement, she smiled back.
“I’m still going to have your ass arrested,” she said, “but that’s a damn good smile.”
“You can’t have my ass arrested. I haven’t broken the law.”
“I’ll think of something,” she said and sat back.
She didn’t cross her arms again, and she’d smiled at him. More progress.
“Are you really a single mother?”
“You named your kid Leroy?”
“No, my husband named our kid Prescott Thurston Brown. So my sister started calling him Leroy to annoy my husband.”
“ ‘Bad, bad Leroy Brown.’”
“Right.” So she was Courtney Brown.
“I took my maiden name back after the divorce,” she said. “So don’t go harassing some poor woman named Courtney Brown.”
“The husband must have been a real jackass.”
“It’s my own fault,” Courtney said. “I stole him from my sister.”
“Thief,” Tenn said.
“She was actually okay with it. She tried to warn me about him. But I was in love.” She rolled her eyes.
“So you’ve been divorced . . . a year? It gets better.”
“And now you’re a marriage expert. You’re divorced?”
“No,” Tenn said. “I’m not the marrying kind.”
“Imagine my surprise.”
“So you’ve been divorced a year . . .”
Tenn stopped. “Two years and you’re still bitter?”
Courtney straightened. “He ran off with the nanny. At Christmas.”
“Bastard,” Tenn said, trying to be supportive.
“The only reason we survived was because of my sister,” Courtney said. “And she never once said ‘I told you so.’”
“Does she hate men, too?”
“No, she’s married to a great guy.”
“So not all men are rats.”
“He works for the CIA,” she said. “He’s going to want to meet you.”
“Oddly enough, the CIA has no interest in me.”
“Oddly enough, my brother-in-law is interested in men who take me hostage.”
“Technically, you took me hostage.”
“I didn’t drag you into this vault.” She started to fold her arms again, and then let her hands fall into her lap. “Never mind. Of course you didn’t take me hostage. I’m just . . .”
“Scared?” Tenn said, trying to be helpful.
“Furious,” she said, glaring at him again. “My boss treats me like I’m an idiot, Colin pulls a gun on me, and you’re lying to me in a vault. It’s been a bad day.”
“I haven’t lied to you,” Tenn said.
She rolled her eyes. “Because you’re so honest.”
“No,” Tenn said patiently. “Because lying takes effort. So I only do it when I need to. If lying to you would get me the Egg, I’d do it in a heartbeat, but it won’t, so I tell the truth.”
“How did you get the blueprints to the shop?”
Tenn smiled at her. “How many dates have you had since your divorce?”
“So that’s a no on telling me about the blueprints.”
“Yes. Also I’m curious about how hard you’ve tried to get back on the horse, so to speak.”
“I’m through with horses,” Courtney said.
“How many dates?”
“None. I told you, I’m through with horses.”
Ten stopped, trying to compute what he’d just heard.
“What?” Courtney said.
“You haven’t had sex in two years?”
“Lots of people go without sex for two years.”
“Not happily,” Tenn said. “It does explain why you’re so tense.”
“Jesus!” Courtney said. “Maybe the fact that I’m locked in a vault with a twenty million dollar Faberge egg and a fucking jewel thief is what’s making me tense.”
“No,” Tenn said. “You know I’m no threat. You’re just coasting on fury and frustration. For two years. Thank God you didn’t have a gun or you’d have shot Colin.”
“Who would have deserved it!”
“No,” Tenn said patiently. “He wouldn’t have. Calm down. You’re safe. Henry’s fine. Everybody’s fine. Deep breaths.”
“No,” Tenn said and she drew back. “Take a deep breath. Now.”
She took a breath, and he watched her breasts rise and fall and thought, Focus, damn it. “No, a really deep breath, from the diaphragm.”
“Look,” she said.
“Just do it.” His voice sounded tired, even to him. He put his hand over his own diaphragm. “Here. Take a good deep breath from here.”
She hesitated, and then she put her hand over her diaphragm, drew a deep, cleansing breath, and let it out.
“Okay, good. Do it again, but this time, let the breath out slower than you took it in.”
She breathed in and then let her breath out slowly, and he tried not to look at the black dress.
She did, and he watched the tension start to leave her face. She was so pretty. No, beautiful. Odd beautiful, Pre-Raphaelite beautiful, with her long, oval face and nineteenth century ringlets. Cold, but beautiful.
“Okay,” she said after a minute of some really provocative breathing. “You were right. Thank you.”
“You’ve been oxygen deprived for two years.”
“Longer than two years. Wow.” She stretched her arms out and closed her eyes, and he watched the muscles in her arms contract as she brought her hands to the back of her head, breathing deeply, which made him breathe faster.
If he made a move, she’d get tense again. He looked at the ceiling.
“So have you always been a thief?” she said, and when he looked back, she was kicking off her shoes.
“Pretty much,” he said and watched her flex her legs. She had great legs. Strong. Probably a runner. He looked at the ceiling again.
“Ever been caught?”
“So you have a record.”
“No. The guy who caught me didn’t turn me in.”
He looked at her again, just to watch her face. “He needed a thief.”
She smiled and leaned forward, and he lost his train of thought.
“I knew it. He sent you after the Egg. There had to be somebody behind this who wanted the Egg to keep, it’d be too hard to fence.”
“Boy, you never let go, do you?”
She sat back. “All the time. Letting go is what I’m best at. You’re here because he hired you to steal the Egg.”
“Not hired. Blackmailed. But yes.”
“Don’t suppose you’ll tell me his name.”
“Don’t suppose I will.”
She took another deep breath, smiling this time. “I like you.”
“You do?” he said, surprised.
“You’re an honest liar. And you pay attention to people. Those are two good qualities.”
“Thank you,” he said, taken aback.
“So you’re Tennyson,” she said, and he realized it was the first time she’d used his name.
“Nice to meet you, Tenn,” she said. “Are there nine older brothers somewhere?”
He smiled at her. “Just a lot of cousins. Nice to meet you, Courtney.”
She smiled back with real warmth, and then her lips parted and her eyes widened as if she’d just had a horrible thought.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing.” She folded her arms again, but she wasn’t hostile this time, and her eyes slid away from him.
“It’s okay,” she said, staring at the ceiling now.
“No, it’s not.” He leaned forward and she tensed. “Courtney, I don’t know what just happened, but if it was something I said, I’m sorry. You’re safe in here with me.”
She met his eyes, and he couldn’t look away. “I know.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
She wet her lips and his mind tried to go sideways, and then she said, “It’s been a pretty good two years.”
“Okay,” he said, trying to follow.
“Trudy and Nolan have helped me with Leroy, and Leroy’s really been doing well, and I tried to get back into one of my old lines of work, but I was getting a little old for that, and then I got this job which I didn’t care about until I started to study gems, and it’s fascinating and working evenings with Henry is fun, and . . .”
Tenn nodded, completely lost.
“I’m doing fine,” Courtney finished.
“Good,” Tenn said, still lost.
“I haven’t missed . . . anything.”
“Courtney, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I haven’t missed sex.”
She met his eyes directly, and he tried to think of something to say. Something not discouraging.
“I’m having warm feelings,” she said.
He nodded, feeling a little light-headed.
“I don’t like it, but I’m definitely feeling . . . warm.”
He nodded, dizzier.
“Might be because of you.”
He nodded, very little blood in his brain.
“Breathe,” she said and he did, which helped. “We’re never going to see each other again, right?”
“Nope,” he said, trying very hard not to say the wrong thing.
“So, no consequences.”
She bit her lip, and then rolled to her knees and crawled across the vault floor to him. “Don’t touch me.”
“Uh,” Tenn said, and then she kissed him.
She hit him hard, not just because he’d been lusting after her for the past hour, but because there was something tough and vulnerable about her at the same time, because she smelled like flowers and soap, but mostly because she’d slipped her tongue in his mouth and her body was right there, full and hot and millimeters away—
He put his arm around her waist and pulled her down to him, rolling so that she was pinned under him, soft against him, and she yanked on his shirt, popping open buttons as he slid the zipper on her dress down.
“We’re alone until tomorrow morning, right?” he said, breathlessly, and she nodded at him, her face flushed and her lips parted.
“Great,” he said and kissed her with intent
Fifteen minutes later, Courtney stared at the ceiling and tried to remember what had happened. It had been good, but she was short on the details. She’d kissed him and then he’d kissed her and put her on her back, and his body had been lean and hard, and while she’d been trying to rip his clothes off to get closer to it, he’d shoved her dress up and touched her bare skin and after that it had just been all heat and spasm and oh-my-god.
“Wow,” she said.
“Yep,” Tenn said and pulled her back to him, and she really looked at him for the first time.
Brown eyes, dark with satisfaction, those were going to haunt her. Great cheekbones, strong jaw, but there was a scar, a fine line tracing down from one brow, and his beard was starting to come in, just a shadow. You’d only notice if you were very close.
She was very close.
“You okay?” he said and she leaned into him and kissed him again because he was a really good kisser, probably from a lot of practice, and good for him, and she’d really missed kissing.
“I’m terrific,” she said against his mouth.
“Yes, you are.” He laughed, and she felt the sound in his chest pressed close to her.
“You’re a good guy,” she said into his chest.
“Thank you. You are not a good girl, thank God.”
“Hey.” She pulled her head back to look up at him. “I’m great!”
“Better than great.” He kissed her again, and she thought, Again.
“You know what I think?” she said.
“Absolutely no idea. It’s part of your charm.” He was smiling down at her, brushing back a curl that had fallen across her face. The man’s smile should have been illegal, it was that good.
Courtney smiled back. She was going to smile for days after this. Maybe weeks. “We should do this again. Only slower so I can pay attention.”
“Well . . .” He stretched against her. “Give me a minute here. Or four or five. But we can do a lot slowly while we’re waiting.”
“Oooh.” Courtney stopped, appalled. “I am so not a woman who says ‘oooh.’ ”
“You are now,” Tenn said and kissed her, and all that good heat flared up again, and she wriggled closer, as close as possible, which wasn’t nearly close enough.
Then she looked down and said, “Oooh.”
“You are a very inspiring woman,” he said and bent to kiss her again.
“Can we still do the other stuff?”
“We’re locked in here all night. We can do it all.”
“This is the best robbery ever,” she said, and he laughed and then the first cylinder on the vault door clicked.
They looked at each other and rolled to their feet, grabbing their clothes as the vault clicked through its last five tumblers. Courtney pulled her dress over her head and grabbed her underwear, sticking it in an unlocked safe deposit drawer as the door swung open.
“Courtney?” Jordan said, looking polished and surprised. Behind him, two uniformed cops looked equally surprised.
“Hi, Jordan.” Didn’t expect you until morning. “Is Henry all right?”
“Henry’s fine, he called me and I came right down.” He looked past her, and she prayed that Tenn was as fast with his clothes as he was on his feet. “Who’s that?”
That’s Tennyson, a professional thief who came to steal the Egg so I had sex with him.
“Bill,” she said. “This is Bill. We had a date. After work. He got caught up in the whole robbery thing.” She looked back at Tenn.
He had his shirt buttoned and pants zipped and was looking at her, a half smile on his face.
Yeah, okay, okay, I didn’t turn you in.
She looked back at Jordan. “We thought we were going to be in here awhile.”
“Oh.” Jordan looked at her shoes tumbled on the floor and then back at the shoe in Tenn’s hand. “Oh.” He shook his head and came into the vault, going straight to the box that held the Egg. He opened it, peered inside. “It’s still here.”
“Of course it’s still here,” Courtney said, annoyed. “That’s why we locked ourselves in the vault.”
“Yes, that was very quick-thinking of you,” Jordan said in the kind of voice people used to compliment small children, turning to the police before the sentence was finished.
Putz, Courtney thought and looked back at Tenn.
He was shrugging on his jacket, but he rolled his eyes at her, a guy who knew a putz when he heard one.
Do not feel friendly toward him, he’s a thief, she told herself, but he was also a damn good one-vault-stand, so all in all—
“We’ll need to talk to you both,” one of the cops said, and Courtney said, “Of course,” and put on her shoes.
Jordan stood to one side and motioned to the door, and she walked out into the shop, looking at it with new eyes. Everything’s different, she thought, but it wasn’t at all, it was just her.
“Are you okay, honey?” Henry said, appearing out of nowhere.
“I’m terrific,” Courtney said and breathed deep. “I am just fine. And I’m so glad Colin didn’t shoot you.”
“Colin?” Henry said and then looked past her, and she turned to see Tenn coming out of the vault, shoes on, shirt rumpled, hair tousled, looking like he’d just had sex. He looked great.
Henry looked back at her. She probably looked like she’d just had sex, too. She felt like she’d just had sex. She felt like she wanted it again, but that would be a bad idea because this was a one-time deal, no complications. One night stand.
Although if they got rid of the cops, the night was still fairly young. Night really didn’t end until dawn anyway. They had hours.
She looked back at Tenn, met his eyes, and smiled a big, crooked smile. He started to laugh.
“I am terrific,” she told Henry and went to tell the cop her side of the story.
When Courtney came down to breakfast the next day, her sister Trudy was already at the table, chowing down on toast.
“You got home late last night,” she said around a mouthful of butter and jam.
“Yep.” Courtney put more bread in the toaster. Whole wheat. Healthy. Good for me.
“Everything is fine.” Except the guy I had hot sex with in the vault disappeared on me with the cops, and I think he might have been arrested because he’s a thief, but he was fine, too.
Trudy fell silent, staring at Courtney, chewing much more slowly now. Courtney flashed her a smile, and Trudy swallowed and said, “What happened?”
Courtney sighed. One of the drawbacks to having a sister was that she knew you. “Somebody tried to rob the shop last night.”
Trudy put her toast down. “Are you all right? Is Henry all right?”
“Yes and yes.” Courtney put her head in the fridge to look for different jam. Anything to keep Trudy from reading her face.
“You’re going to tell me about this, right?”
Courtney sighed, snagged the blueberry jam, and closed the fridge door. “This guy forced his way in after closing and made me open the vault, but I got inside and closed it before he could take anything. Then Jordan showed up about an hour and a half later and let me out. I told the police everything.” Most of it. “Then I came home.”
Trudy sat back, frowning at her. “What else?”
“That’s not enough?”
“No, that’s something you would have told me right off the bat, with lots of sound effects and an imitation of Jordan. Why are you being so secretive?”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Why would I worry? You’re fine.”
“Well then, we’re good.” Her toast popped and she turned her back on Trudy to butter and jam the bread.
“Something happened,” Trudy said.
Courtney picked up her purse and stacked her pieces of toast. “I really don’t have time–”
“You don’t go in to work until two. You have time.”
“I have shopping,” Courtney began and then her phone buzzed, and she gave up. She put the toast on the table and got her phone out of her purse and sat down across from her too-damn-observant sister.
“So what really happened?”
Courtney looked at her phone as a stall. There was a text message:
Happy Valentine’s Day.
“Courtney . . .”
“Just a minute,” Courtney said, frowning at the phone. One of the many reasons she hated texts: No idea who it was. She texted back:
That was yesterday.
The phone beeped again:
I was distracted.
“Wait a minute,” Courtney said, her heart beating faster, and then her phone beeped again.
It was hot in the vault.
“Oh, my god,” she said.
“What?” Trudy said. “What? What’s going on?”
Courtney typed in:
Did you get arrested?
No. Still a spotless record.
She sat back and looked at her phone. She’d been a little disappointed when he’d vanished with the cops, but the night was definitely over now, and yet here he was again, in the cold light of day and reality. That wasn’t good. She was pretty sure that wasn’t good.
“Tell me now,” Trudy said. “I’m getting upset.”
“There was another guy.” Courtney stared at her phone, trying to decide if she was delighted or appalled that he knew enough about her to text her. It was definitely one or the other because her heart was beating really hard.
“No, he came in after Colin did.”
“The first thief.”
“There was more than one?”
“No, no, just one.”
“And he told you his name was Colin? Chatty of him.”
Her phone beeped again:
Don’t worry, I’m not outside your door.
Courtney bit her lip and typed in:
Where are you?
“Wow, what?” Trudy said.
“He’s in London.”
“Who is in London?”
Her phone beeped again:
In a bank .
Are you robbing it?
No. Just saw the vault. Thought of you.
“I don’t know what to do with this,” Courtney said, staring at the phone.
“Do with what?” Trudy said.
“He’s in a bank in London, and he saw the vault, and he thought of me.”
“Why?” Trudy said.
“Because we had sex in the vault last night.”
Trudy put down her coffee cup. “Give me that phone.”
“No.” Courtney stared at the phone and then typed in: Don’t rob the bank .
Wasn’t going to.
Stay out of jail.
Courtney hesitated and then typed: I had a good time last night.
Me, too. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
She put the phone down and tried to figure out how she felt. Of course she was delighted he was in London, that simpled things up so much.
“Courtney?” Trudy said, sounding cautious.
“I’m a little confused,” Courtney told her.
“Are you going to see him again?” Trudy asked, carefully.
“Wow.” Courtney blinked at her. “That’s so unlike you.”
“Okay, tell me how and why and what happened in the vault last night.”
“Tenn came in after Colin—
“You know these guys by name.”
“It was a long night. When I opened the vault door, Tenn shoved me inside and slammed the door.”
“Then I yelled at him and accused him of being a thief and he told me to breathe and I did and I felt better. And then I kissed him and we had fast, hot, really good sex, and then Jordan opened the vault, and we both talked to the cops and when I looked for him later he was gone. And now he just texted me. From London.” She looked at the phone again. “He’s in a bank. He said the vault reminded him of me.”
“Uh huh.” Trudy looked at her for a moment. “Go back to the part where you were yelling at him and then you had sex. How exactly did you get from one to the other?”
Courtney thought about the way Tenn had laughed with her. He’d put himself between her and Colin. He’d taught her to breathe. And the look on his face when he’d said, “I’d never hurt you . . .”
Courtney sighed. “It was just a perfect storm on a heaving ocean of a bad day, and he was the helicopter who came for me.” She met Trudy’s eyes. “And I’m not sorry. It was great. It was a one-time thing only, but it was great.”
“But he’s a thief,” Trudy said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You said ‘first thief.’ So this Tenn has to be the second thief.”
“It’s possible,” Courtney said.
“Did you tell the police that?”
Trudy sat back, studying her sister.
“You had sex with a thief in the vault at your work.”
“I have to meet this guy.”
“No, he’s gone,” Courtney said.
The phone beeped again, but it was her AT&T bill.
“He’s really gone,” she said and put her phone away.
Courtney went into work where Jordan grilled her and Henry mercilessly about the night before without getting anywhere because, Courtney thought, there was nowhere to get. The only thing she hadn’t told the police was that Bill was really Tenn, so her story matched Henry’s perfectly. Jordan had a few oblique words to say about employees who had sex with customers in the vault, and he made sure she couldn’t get back in there, which was a shame because that’s where her underwear was, but after that, it was a typical week at Wallace Gems.
On Friday, she watched a customer leave the store with a Felici watch. That’s a bad watch, she wanted to say, but instead, she said to Henry, “This is boring.”
“Boring is good in a jewelry store,” Henry said. “You want another night like last Friday?”
“Wouldn’t mind it,” Courtney said. “Without the guns, of course, and you safe at home with Junie.”
Henry chuckled and shook his head, the perfect grandpa-surrogate. “You kids.”
“I’m not a kid,” Courtney said, but she smiled anyway.
Then her phone beeped, and she looked at the text, expecting it to be Trudy asking her to buy bread on her way home.
Anybody robbed the place yet?
She caught her breath. Be cool, she thought and then remembered she was texting. She could hyperventilate if she wanted to and he wouldn’t know.
Who are you?
Bank vault, last Friday. How soon we forget.
I remember. Are you still in London?
No. Paris. Are you in the vault?
No. Wow. Vault guy. Texting me again.
I think of you every time I go by a bank.
I think of you every time I go by the vault. My underwear is still in there. How are you?
You never call, you never write . . .
This is writing. Gotta go. I’m next in line.
I’m at the bank.
Of course you are. Are you a bank robber?
No. Unless that’s good for you.
No. So you like banks.
Vaults, mostly. Ever since that night with you.
“Would it be too much to ask you to work?” Jordan said, and Courtney looked up to see his bland, blond face scowling at her. “Assuming you want to keep this job, of course.”
“Of course,” Courtney said, and type: Gotta go. Boss is here.
That guy. He’s always in the way.
Don’t rob anybody.
“Courtney!” Jordan said, and Courtney put away the phone. “I suppose that was your partner in crime.”
“The man with you in the vault last Friday. I’m not that easy to fool.” Jordan peered at her, his frat boy face trying to fake intelligence and failing. “I know you’re up to something.”
“Jordan, the Felici watches are crap,” Courtney said.
“They’re crap, Jordan,” Courtney said and went to sort invoices and think about Paris.
Tenn’s POV on the phone with the nameless guy who hired him, watching Courtney and the rest of the store on the security cameras and pretty sure that Jordan’s up to something. Also, there’s another character, a young woman named Madison, who works at the store who should be in the previous scene, but I’m not there yet. She’s part time, works on the store’s computers doing inventory, invoices, etc.
On Friday, Courtney went to the grocery as usual, since Friday was Grocery Day. My life kind of sucks, she thought, and then decided she was just grumpy. It wasn’t like somebody had forced her to declare that Fridays were Grocery Days. She liked having Friday as Grocery Day. It was organized and calm and smart and—
Her phone beeped, and she pulled it out of her purse, her pulse picking up. It was probably Trudy but–
Happy Blue Dragon Festival.
And I didn’t get you anything.
I miss Chinese food.
They don’t have Chinese food in Paris?
I’m in Barcelona.>
I’m in Shop-Rite. It’s Grocery Friday.
So you have Chinese food.
The frozen potstickers aren’t bad.
I’m not wearing a bra. Sorry. Ignore that. Impulse.</em>
Too late. What are you wearing?
A bra. I lied.
Tell me you’re naked and eating Crab Rangoon.
I’m naked and eating Crab Rangoon.</em>
Pix or it didn’t happen.
I’m not taking off my clothes in ShopRite.
They’d throw me out and this is the only place that has corn mini-muffins.
And it’s Grocery Friday.
Have to go.
I’m next in line.
You’re in a bank in Barcelona.
Damn things are everywhere.
She smiled at the phone, and then somebody banged into her cart and apologized and she remembered it was Grocery Day.
<em>Thank god, he’s in Barcelona</em>, she thought, and went back to Frozen Foods to get potstickers.
“So there’s this really nice guy who works with Nolan,” Trudy said at lunch the next Friday.
“The vault guy has been texting me,” Courtney said.
“He’s not CIA, thank god, but–” Trudy looked at her over the top of her glasses. “Wait. What?”
“The guy in the vault. Tenn.”
“I thought he was in Paris.”
“You can text from Paris.”
“I mean, I thought he was a one-night stand who is now in Paris.”
“He’s not asking for a second date. He just texts.”
“On Fridays.” Courtney checked her phone again. “Or every time he’s in a bank. I’m not sure.”
“Is he a banker?”
“Is he a bank robber?”
“He says not.” Courtney thought about it. “I don’t know.”
“So you’re texting with a French bank robber.”
“He’s not French. Do you want the rest of your fries?”
“Yes. So what does he say in these texts?”
“Random stuff.” Courtney ate one of Trudy’s fries. “It’s the best relationship I’ve ever had.”
“How? He’s in Paris.”
“That’s why it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had.”
Her phone beeped and she looked at the screen.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Would I lie?
What are you wearing?
Clothes. Having lunch with my sister.
“I can’t believe you’re texting,” Trudy said. “That’s so not like you. Is that the guy?”
Tell her I said hi.
“He says hi.”
“Tell him if he’s a bank robber my husband will put him in jail.”
Her husband is a Fed.
So don’t rob banks.
Where are you?
Still? It’s not like you to settle down.
Grocery Friday? Come on.
Courtney stared at the screen.
“What? Trudy said.
“I’m never buying groceries on Friday again,” Courtney said as the phone beeped again.
Gotta go. Happy Women’s Day.
Courtney put the phone down and stared at it.
“You’re not seriously involved here, are you?” Trudy said.
“No.” Courtney pushed the phone away. “That would be ridiculous.”
“So about this guy from Nolan’s office.”
“Sure,” Courtney said. “Why not?”
“Fabulous,” Trudy said and began to wax eloquent about all the sterling qualities of the guy-that-Nolan-knew.
But can he text? Courtney thought and ate the rest of Trudy’s fries.
Tenn, watching the store on the security cameras and getting more and more worried, talking to his nameless boss on the phone.
Courtney smiled at Jason, a perfectly nice FBI analyst who seemed a little repressed, possibly because he was on a date with the boss’s sister and the boss was there. She leaned closer to Trudy and whispered, “This might have gone better without the two of you.”
“I know,” Trudy whispered back. “Nolan insisted. He’s very protective of you.”
“Wonderful,” Courtney said and then her phone buzzed.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Courtney put her napkin on the table. “Excuse me,” she said with a smile that said, “I”m going to the ladies room but I’m too polite to mention it at the dinner table.” Then she got up and went out into the lobby, and typed in
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Are you in the vault?
No, I’m on a date.
You’re on a date?
Yes, but we don’t text, so I’m not cheating on you.</em>
Are you in a bank vault?
We’re in a restaurant.
With my sister and her husband.
Her husband is my date’s boss.
It’s not going well.
What are you wearing?
Yes. But tasteful. Not Hooters.
If Hooters had Chinese food.
I have to go back.
I excused myself to text you.
Least I could do. I have to go back.
Okay. No second base.
On the first date? Like I would.</em>
As I remember . . .
That wasn’t a date.
It’s a date I remember. Feb. 14.
“What are you doing?” Trudy said from behind her.
“Texting,” Courtney said and typed, .Busted. Gotta go.
Good night, Court.
Good night, Tenn.
“I worry about you,” Trudy said.
“I worry about me, too,” Courtney said and went back to be nice to Jason.