Authors: Staci Hart
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Erotica, #Romantic, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Romantic Erotica, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
“Yeah. It’s on.”
“Good.” He glanced over us. “Make money, hoes.”
Everyone at the table collectively rolled their eyes, and we all dispersed. I grabbed my coffee and money, and when I reached my room, I closed the door and sat on the bed, setting my mug on the nightstand.
I counted through my cash and reached under the bed for my lock box to add it to my stash. Almost everything I needed could be paid for with cash — food, clothes, MetroCard, phone. We paid rent and utilities to Jade, who paid the bills on the loft after laundering the cash through Jace’s cover business. Most of us didn’t have any other real expenses, but I had Jill.
Over the summer, I’d dropped a solid twenty grand into my safe deposit box to pay for Jill’s private high school. I wanted to give her every opportunity, all the chances I didn’t have, and the money I made with Jade allowed me to do just that. Jill didn’t take it for granted, either. She worked hard, was on the honor roll, student council. She was a doer.
My phone buzzed, and I picked it up to find the address to the store for later on. I sighed as I flexed my back and cracked my neck, still tired from the night before. But there would be no talking Jade out of it, and the money never hurt. All of it could go in Jilly’s college fund, which had steadily climbed to an amount that would soon pay for her degree at practically any school she chose. Putting up with Jade’s shit was a small price to pay for that.
Jade and I had been friends, once upon a time. Funny enough, her sass and bitch were what first charmed me. She didn’t give a fuck, said whatever she thought. I connected with that. People like that have brass, and it was comforting to find another outsider, even though our methods weren’t the same. It wasn’t long before we’d attracted the others, and for years, we were all happy and fulfilled. It might have been the only time in my life that I’d felt like I had a family.
It wasn’t that I didn’t consider Jilly my family. It’s just that with the girls, I knew someone had my back. It offered a certain level of protection and comfort that I didn’t get at home, and with Jill, I was the one providing that for her. No one was there to give it back. My parents didn’t care enough to even pretend.
But a solid wall existed between me and everyone, even Jill and Erin. No one got in. No one could see what was behind it.
Once we graduated and moved out, something changed, a slight shift in our dynamic. Jade took charge more and more often, and I was the only one who would voice any level of dissent when she squeezed and pushed. The fact pissed her off, drove a wedge between us, as if by disagreeing with her, I challenged her alpha status. Thing is, Jade’s never been alpha, not really, only plays at it, wishes for it. But she doesn’t have what it takes to really lead.
The real nail in the coffin was the second Jace came in on everything. That was it. Jade was officially top bitch, the head of operations, and we were all expected to do what she said. She found the jobs, Jace got the money, and we were all tools to her, pack mules. Respect went out the window, but the money was too easy. None of us cared enough to fuck up a good thing, least of all me.
But it wouldn’t last forever, even though for a long time life had been static, a flat line of daily repetition, working to save, saving for the goal. At some point, it would end. Jilly would graduate college, or I’d have enough saved to pay for it. One day I wouldn’t have a reason to stay. I’d be free.
I just didn’t know how to be free.
That afternoon, I leaned against the ivy-covered wall with my hands in my jacket, thumbing the envelope of cash folded inside. The bell rang in the old building behind me, and I pushed away from the wall, looking through the rungs of the cast iron gate to watch kids in uniforms pour out of the building like ants, a mass of teenagers moving like a single unit.
Jill found me almost immediately and smiled with her black ponytail swinging behind her, the apples of her cheeks pink and green eyes bright. She was a younger version of me, and it was like looking into some alternate universe as she clutched her books to her chest and wound her way around people. She pulled me into a hug.
“Hey,” she said with a squeeze.
“Hey, Jilly.” I squeezed her back, smiling as I pulled away. “How was school?” I asked when we started walking.
She shrugged. “Same old. AP English is killing me slowly, but I’ll survive. How’s the harrowing life of a bike messenger and acrobatic hobbyist? Any near-death experiences lately?”
I laughed. “Nothing of note.” My smile fell. “How are things at home?”
Jill looked down at her oxfords. “You know how it is. I spend most of my time at Sarah’s house. I stay out of Mom and Dad’s way, and they stay out of mine.”
“Just remember,” I said dramatically.
“At least they weren’t Aunt Gina,” we recited and laughed.
“I know, I know.” Jill waved a hand. “Living with that crazy drunk would have been way worse than parents who couldn’t give a shit about their kids. At least they didn’t abuse us. Just ignored us.”
“Like the time I landed in juvi for breaking into that old mall in Jersey and Mom left me there without so much as a phone call.”
“Well, you turned out okay, and so will I.”
My heart lurched. “Small miracles. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the freedom when I was your age.”
For all the good it did me.
“I just paid tuition for the semester, so you’re all set. Brought you some cash too. Need me to buy you some booze?” I handed her the envelope with a smirk.
“God, you’re so loose, you know that?” She shook her head as she took it and pulled her backpack around to put the cash in a pocket. “I think I’m good on the underage drinking. I’ll never get into Stanford if I get arrested at sixteen.”
“You’d be surprised at what they’d be willing to look past for straight A’s and tuition in cash.”
She laughed, flashing her mega-watt smile, and the urge to get away slipped over me. Being with Jill was always confusing, just like trying to make sense of the twisting, gnarled vines that covered the wall we walked past. Every leaf was a choice I’d made, a wish I had, a feeling I pushed to the back to wither in the shade. I loved Jill and wanted to be there for her, but I couldn’t let her in, couldn’t let her see me, not when I couldn’t make sense of any of it myself.
She had no idea where the money came from. If she did, she would revolt. All the work, all the bullshit with Jade … it would all be for nothing if Jilly wouldn’t let me help her. And if she knew I’d been stealing to pay her way, she’d never accept another penny from me.
I looked away. “So, I can’t really hang—”
Jill smiled, though her eyes held the weight of sadness behind them. “I know. Cory, thank you. For everything.”
I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her in for a hug. “No prob, kid. I just want to give you everything I never had. Is that so wrong?”
“A little ambitious, maybe,” she answered with a chuckle and looked at me, full of hope and admiration. “I’ll do you proud. I’ll make it worth it for you.”
“Lemme tell you a little secret.” I looked her in the eye. “You already have.” My chest ached at the version of what I could have been if I’d had the opportunity, all shiny and fresh and ready for the world instead of dark and mangled and beaten down from it. “I gotta head out, ‘kay? I’ll see you next Friday.”
“It’s my favorite day of the week.” She waved.
I smiled, but my heart was heavy with guilt. “Mine too.”
The rain fell softly around us as we stood in a half-circle around Jade, scanning the dark alley as she knelt to pick the lock to the dirty back door of an electronics store. When it popped, Jade stood and opened the door with a metallic creak.
We had about a minute to get in before the motion sensors would set the alarm off. Everyone shifted to let me by, and I brushed past, scanning the hall, looking for the alarm panel as I made my way to the store’s office. The small room was crammed with shelves full of files and boxes, and a desk stood shoved in the corner. The smell of curry hit me like a wall when I stepped in and glanced around, finding the alarm on the wall over a first-aid kit.
It was a simple system, just a standard alarm with a subscription service. Too easy. I assessed it as I dropped my pack and pulled out wire cutters, then popped off the casing and snipped the phone line to disable the call system. Everyone waited silently behind me.
“Done.” I tossed the wire cutters back into my pack, and then we turned to loot.
Jade was right. Every shelf was stocked, and we cleaned them out with greedy hands.
Jade made her way to the square standing case that was full of high-end camera equipment. She vaulted over and into the center of the display, knelt down, and unlocked the sliding glass doors in seconds.
She jerked her chin at us. “Come on. Focus on this.”
We abandoned what we were doing to fill our backpacks and Jade’s duffle bag, and just as we were zipping our bags, flashlights shone through the front door.
“Hey,” a muffled voice yelled, and the cop banged on the window with the back of his Maglite.
Jade spun around with eyebrows cinched together and venom in her voice. “What the fuck, Cor?” She turned to the girls and pushed Cher in the shoulder. “GO.”
My heart kicked into gear as everyone took off, vaulting over the cases. I slid under the gate to the case and there it was. A small red light blinked like a frantic metronome, near the pace of my pulse.
I twisted and got to my feet, following the girls through the store to the exit. “There was a separate alarm on the case, Jay.”
“This is your fault,” she shot back at me as we burst into the alley, just as the cops ran into the mouth of the outlet, and one of them was on his radio.
No one spoke or paused. The rule was simple. When things got hot, it was every girl for herself.
The building in front of us was an easy climb with jutting bricks at intervals in a pattern, and I could see every hold I’d need to get me to the top. I ran full sprint, took three steps up the wall and grabbed a brick easily, climbing to the roof like it was nothing. I hit the tar paper and took off, and within minutes, the sirens were behind me. When I heard the helicopter, I dropped to the street and pulled off my buff, walking with no more purpose than anyone else in Manhattan as I wound my way through people and back to the warehouse.
I was the first one back, and opened the door to find Jace sitting at the table on his laptop, looking mildly surprised.
“That was fast.”
“Yeah, well.” I slammed the door. “The alarm on the case Jade popped had a separate trip.”
He stood fast enough to knock the chair back a foot. “What the hell, Cory?” he yelled, his brow low and eyes cold.
I threw my hands up, not about to take shit from Jace. “Christ, what do you assholes expect out of me? How the fuck would I have known? Jade was the one who got the tip and knew about the alarms. I did my fucking job and overrode the main system. You and Jade can suck my dick.”
The door opened behind me, and the girls trickled in, Jade last.
“You incompetent fucking bitch,” Jade hissed and threw the door closed with a bang. “That was
“Jesus, Jade,” Erin huffed as she pulled off her buff and slapped it onto the table. “Get over it. We got our shit and we got out. Everyone’s fine.”
Jade stepped to Erin and arched over her, steaming. “We got lucky. If Cory had done her fucking job, we wouldn’t have had to bail.”
Cher propped her hands on her hips. “Wasn’t it
job to case the alarm system?”
Jade pointed at Cher with a sneer. “Fuck you too, you little bitch. She should know to check.”
Rage crawled under my skin, and my fists shook by my side, itching to bury themselves in Jade’s face. “It’s over.”
She directed every bit of her attention at me, and the tension crackled between us as she took a step in my direction. “I should dock you for the trouble.”
Morgan dropped her brow and stepped between us. “Fuck that, Jade. That case had a totally separate system. That never happens. How would Cory have known to look? In fact,
were the one who had us ignore everything to clean out the camera case.”
“Yeah,” I added, “and you should have seen that light when you were down there picking the lock. I’m not getting fucked over for this, especially when we didn’t even get busted.”
“I’ll do whatever the fuck I want,” Jade spat and looked around the room. “You’d all be smart to listen up, because I can end this any time. Without me, you’re all nothing.”
“And without us, so are you,” Morgan said as she threw her pack on the table and left the room. We all did the same, and Jade and I locked eyes for a long moment before I followed everyone out, leaving the hell-twins in the kitchen alone.
My damp hair laid on the pillow around my face as I stared at the exposed piping above my bed. The loft was quiet and still, and I wondered absently what time it was, not caring enough to reach for my phone. We’d all gone separate ways after getting back, which was good because I wasn’t up for anything other than solitude. The shower had been scalding, though not hot enough to wash away my thoughts, and my bed was soft and familiar, but not enough that I could find sleep.
It sucked that we almost got caught, and I really did feel partly responsible, even though no one blamed me except Jade. But Jade could give a shit that we didn’t get caught. Any excuse to pin some bullshit on me would be taken with a smile. I worried about the other girls and how they felt about everything, but not Jade. Her spot on my list of people I gave a fuck about was somewhere near my parents and drunk Santa Clauses.
She was all bark, and she couldn’t do any of it without me. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t sick of her shit, and I wondered if I was the only one. For a fleeting moment, I saw us all stacked up like a house of cards. A light breeze could be all it took to pull the whole thing down.