Authors: Staci Hart
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Erotica, #Romantic, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Romantic Erotica, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
Van’s lips tipped in a crooked smile. “You sure I’m not a creep?”
“Nah, you only put out a mild stalker vibe, not full-on American Psycho.”
“Good to know.” He nodded, the smile never leaving his face, his eyes locked onto mine. “Let me take you out tonight.”
Nerves buzzed in my stomach.
I needed a minute to prep myself, but I didn’t want to lose my nerve. “What time?” The question was tentative.
“I can pick you up at eight.”
“Can I meet you at your place?” I asked, not wanting him to be able to find the warehouse after it was all over.
“Yeah, of course. How about I cook for you, and then we can run. You in?”
Neither of us spoke for a stretched out moment. His eyes were so dark and rich, and I noticed the mossy green ring around his pupil that shot out like a starburst. I distantly acknowledged that I was supposed to leave, but I couldn’t bring myself to move, just stood there, and so did he.
He broke the silence. “I’m glad you came in. I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again.”
“I wasn’t so sure myself until this morning.” I took a breath to steady myself and glanced at the door. “I’ve got to run. I’ll see you tonight.”
I smiled and ducked my head as I walked through the door with my heart hammering my ribs, even more uncertain than when I’d walked in.
An hour later, I paced Erin’s room with one arm across my chest and my free hand on my mouth.
“I don’t want to do this.”
Erin sighed and pulled her legs up so she was sitting lotus on the end of her bed. “Cory, just tell Jilly the truth about the money. Take away Jade’s power.”
“The fuck I will, Erin.” I looked at her like she had an extra eye as I turned to cross the room again. “Jilly won’t let me help her if she knows where the money comes from. Never. No way.”
“You don’t think she has a single clue that you’re more than just a bike courier?” One eyebrow was jacked.
I glared at her. “She doesn’t know how bad it is.”
“That’s a little melodramatic. It’s not like you’re selling crack to grade-schoolers.”
“There is no way she would accept money that I got putting myself at risk. It’s like willingly taking blood money. She would revolt.”
Erin sighed and shook her head. “You don’t know that for a fact.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Why, because you’re psychic? What does your crystal ball say?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Just tell her. She’ll be fine. She can handle it.”
it. If she won’t take my help, I don’t know what will happen to her. She can’t end up like me.”
Erin shrugged. “Running with Jade isn’t so bad.”
“That’s seriously the least fucked up thing about me.” I chewed my thumbnail with my eyes on the concrete as I wore a rut in it, turning again.
Erin just watched me for a moment while I lapped the room a few times.
“This is impossible. There’s no answer. I can’t tell Jill, and I can’t steal from Van. Can I?”
“I don’t know, Cory. Can you?”
I tossed a hand in the air. “Fuck, I don’t know. I can, but I don’t want to. Why is this hard? This shouldn’t be hard. It’s never been hard before.”
“Because he loves something you love, and is able to express it in a way that shows other people why you love it.”
I stopped and looked at her with an eyebrow up.
She mirrored my expression. “What? It’s hot. And you totally fucked without even knowing his name. On a roof. After a job. There’s a lot of weird energy tied up in this.”
I started walking again, turning my eyes back to the ground in front of me.
“Okay,” Erin said after a minute, “maybe you just have some latent sexual energy hanging around. Go find out about the painting and fuck his brains out. See how you feel. See if there’s another option, maybe a way for Jade to get it on her own. Some way you don’t really have to be involved if you like him.”
“That’s the thing, Erin. I do like him.”
She shook her head. “You just need to fuck him out of your system. Seriously.”
I didn’t know that for certain. “I don’t want this.”
“You think at this point you’d be able to walk away and never think about it again?”
“Eventually, yeah. I’ll get over it. But I don’t want to make the attraction any worse. And I don’t want to be involved in stealing something from him.”
“If you don’t want to steal from him, then you have to tell Jilly the truth before Jade does.” It was the simple truth.
I threw my hands up. “Fuck, Erin! I can’t. I can’t do either of these things.”
“Well, doing nothing isn’t an option. Look, the unknown factor here is Van. Maybe he has terrible breath. Maybe he eats like a pig. Maybe he insults homeless people and kicks orphans.”
“Orphan kicking? Really?”
“Seriously, maybe he’s a huge dick and you’ll hate him. You can steal the painting for the orphans.”
I snorted and rolled my eyes. “What happens if I don’t hate him?”
“Then we all have bigger shit to worry about. Like Armageddon. You falling for a guy has to be a sign of the apocalypse.”
Fifty pounds of bullshit rested on my shoulders as I sank onto the bed and sagged into her side. “What is happening to me?”
She put an arm around me. “Hormones. Growing up. I don’t know.”
“Why can’t this be easy?”
“This is life. Nothing is easy or simple.”
I sighed. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I just need to fuck my way out of it.”
“It sounds so much more whorey when you say it about yourself.”
I pinched her arm.
“Ow!” she said with a laugh. “Really, Cory. It’s going to be okay. I’m sure all this is nothing, and after tonight, you’ll have a plan.” She hugged me for a few more seconds before adding, “Wanna make out?”
I laughed. “You jealous?”
“My vagina is jealous, but I’m not. It’s been even longer for me than your stretch without peen.”
“I’m sure Van has friends.”
But she only laughed. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t make this any more complicated than it already is.”
DUSK HAD SETTLED INTO the city inch by inch by the time I walked up to the Kyle building that night. George the doorman smiled at me from where he waited under the awning.
“Hello again, Miss James. Mr. Collins said you’d be by,” he said and pulled open the door.
“Thanks, George.” I smiled at him as I passed and stepped into the foyer of the building, taking a second to look around. One camera at the door, probably another in each elevator, front desk unmanned. I looked for a service entry and noted two hallways flanking the elevator well.
“You remember where to go, then?”
floor. Help myself, right?”
“You got it. Have a good night, Miss James.”
I gave him a nod and walked to the elevators.
I didn’t think anyone had ever called me anything so formal, and when I hit the button and the doors opened, it sank in. I was going on a date, a legit date with a rich photographer who I’d anonymously fucked on a rooftop. I hadn’t been on a date since two-thousand-never. The closest I’d gotten might have been Erin and me in bed with Chinese takeout.
But the excitement drained out of me when I remembered the worst part. None of it was real. I couldn’t ever really have that life, the one where the girl gets the guy. Where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. I couldn’t have it, whether I wanted it or not.
By the time I knocked on his door, my nerves were somewhere around an eleven as the reality set in that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. I tried to swallow, but my throat was so dry, I almost choked as I waited for him to answer.
Fuck him out of your system and get the job done.
The thought gave me an ounce of bullshit resolve as he pulled open the door.
“Hey.” He was gorgeous, his smile bright, his shirt stretched tight across his chest and half-tucked into his jeans. “Come on in.”
“Thanks.” I found myself smiling back as I walked past him, catching his scent, clean and crisp like laundry. I shrugged out of my leather jacket, and he took it from me.
The apartment smelled even better, like rosemary and roasting meat. “Smells amazing,” I said and followed him into the kitchen.
“Have a seat.” He motioned to the bar at the island. “Want a drink?”
“What have you got?” I sat and leaned on the granite counter, watching his wide back when he turned to his liquor cabinet.
“Beer, wine, and all major liquor classes are represented. Is it too early for tequila?”
“I don’t think that’s a thing. What do you have in the way of whiskey?”
He fished around on the shelf. “Maker’s, Jameson, American Honey. Or I have scotch too, Glenlivet?”
“Scotch would be great, on the rocks. Thanks.”
Van put a little ice in the glass and spoke as he poured. “I’ve got to be honest. I didn’t know if you were going to show.”
He didn’t know how close I’d come to staying home. My brow quirked, and I smiled like he was being ridiculous. “How come?”
He shrugged and pushed the glass across the counter. “I was surprised enough to see you at the gallery after how my little, ah, ambush went.”
I laughed. “Yeah, well, you caught me a little off-guard.”
“Not my smoothest idea. I just got the strong impression that I wouldn’t ever see you again, but I’ve seen you twice today. Both times I’ve been caught by surprise. In fact, every time I’ve seen you has been shocking in one way or another.”
I took a sip of my drink to buy time in an attempt to get my head together but met his eyes when I set down my glass.
This is how you run a con. You give enough of yourself, of your honesty to convince them that you are what you say. I didn’t even have to lie. The thought gave me comfort.
My smile was genuine and easy because my words were true. “It was hard to walk away, honestly. I understand what you show me with your work. Seeing your gallery sealed the deal.”
“I kind of hoped for that.” His smile was sideways.
I chuckled and rolled my eyes, but my cheeks were warm. “God, you think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
“I have my moments.”
I looked behind him to the oven and jerked my chin. “Rich, athletic,
He never stopped smiling as his eyes locked on mine. I almost squirmed, it was so intense. “I seek out things in life that are satisfying. Running, food, photography. You.”
I picked up my drink and raised an eyebrow, trying to keep it light. “And charming. How are you single? You must have some serious baggage.”
Van leaned over the counter. “No more than anyone, I guess. I just don’t settle.”
It was such a prickish thing to say, as if no one had ever been good enough for him. I looked down my nose at my drink with a suppressed smile. “Ah.”
He paused, looking over me. “You’re judging me.”
“Maybe a little.”
He watched me for a beat before responding. “I’ve dated and had a few long-term relationships, but it always imploded. Women see money or muscles or status when they see me. Do you know what it’s like to find out that someone you thought loved you only wanted to use you?”
My hands went freezing cold. I shook my head.
“Yeah, it’s not fun.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t want to waste my time with someone who wants me for money or status, but I’m probably more trusting than I should be. I just have a very low tolerance for bullshit. And past that, most people don’t get the things that I love. I can’t imagine spending my life with someone who doesn’t understand the basic concepts that make up who I am.”
I was an ass for assuming, and a fucking scumbag for the rest. But more than that — I completely understood. I took a breath. “I get that.”
“I had a feeling you would.”
We stared at each other from across the bar, silent for a moment, and I was unable to think of a single thing to say.
Van broke the connection and turned for the oven, grabbing a thermometer on his way. “How long have you been a traceur?”
I spun my glass around. “I’ve been freerunning since I was sixteen. We used to hit the warehouses in the Meatpacking District and Hell’s Kitchen, but honestly, it’s always been a part of my life. I used to drive my parents crazy scaling counters and the pantry to get to the Froot Loops, which was apparently my favorite food at two. Or once, my mom told me I used to scale my closet wall to hang on the clothes rack.”
He laughed as he stuck the thermometer in a pork loin and watched the digital face. “Same here, in the sense that it’s always been a force in life. My dad used to hide candy in a jar over the fridge, but by the time I was three I could get to it.” He shook his head. “My buddies and I started running in high school too, in Queens. Moved to the Manhattan as soon as I opened the gallery.” He pulled out the meat and set it on the counter to rest.
“I was wondering what the story was with the gallery. How’d you get started?”