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THE RELUCTANT THIEF: Chapter Three
Toni crossed her legs in the plush office and then uncrossed them. It was impossible to find a comfortable way to sit when waiting for your archnemesis to walk into the room and confront you.
She looked around at the wood paneling on the three walls that weren’t windows. It was strange that it wasn’t a corner office, but maybe Sterling knew that so many people wanted him dead that fewer windows were better.
Or maybe it was because he was pretty much never in town and technically didn’t have any ownership rights in this company. That was Sterling’s long game in his criminal empire. He didn’t really own anything. He owned shell companies that owned shell companies that owned shell companies.
When they’d taken out Greg Stranger, his money man, they’d dealt a huge blow to complex web of lies and cash. But they hadn’t destroyed it, and he went so deep into hiding that it had taken months for him to get the balls to pop out again. And now that he was back, he was cleaning house, ordering the death of Jadon Belli, one of his former right-hand guys, and killing all those people to frame Scott for murder.
Toni heard the door behind her open. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. A silent warning to run. To get the hell out of there. But she stayed seated. She didn’t look behind her or stand. Just stayed in place and awaited her fate.
All of a sudden, there he was. Jonathan Fucking Sterling walked around his desk and took a seat right across from her.
“Ms. Murray. This is quite a surprise.”
He wasn’t alone. Standing off to the side of the room was a big bodyguard. He looked as if he spent too much time in the gym, and his dark, hooded eyes were dispassionate and blank. If Sterling wanted her dead, she knew without a doubt that it would be this man doing the dirty work.
Sterling didn’t get literal blood on his hands.
She avoided looking at the stranger because the longer she stared at him, the more terrified she got, and she couldn’t afford the fear to get in the way of her plans. And she tended to get a bit bitchy when she was scared. She needed to be the right amount of humble right now.
“I didn’t want to surprise you. That’s why I told the desk guy my name.” Nope, that was still too much bitch. Some habits were hard to break.
“I have to admit, there’s a lot I want to say to you, young lady. But why don’t you start by telling me what you’re doing here.”
Young lady…. She took in a deep breath and tried to control her anger. She supposed Sterling was older than her. From her intense research into his history, she knew almost everything about him. He was born to a poor mother and father and had one older brother. The childhood had been mainly rooted in tragedy. His brother had been murdered right after high school, and his father had left his mother after rumors of infidelity.
He had been raised in a sea of lies and pain, which would make her feel bad for him if he wasn’t such an asshole. But he’d crawled his way to a scholarship and ended up with a business degree. After he was apparently unsatisfied with the money he could make legally, he got to work in the eighties, filling his pocketbook any way he could.
He started off simple, working in the drug business. Except not the street corner drug business. He started wholesale, arranging for massive shipments from South America into the States. After five years of success, he’d garnered the attention of the FBI but avoided prosecution. That drug circle was disbanded, but he regrouped and diversified. Now he worked in trafficking all sorts of things in and out of the country, including stolen art, drugs, and, even worse, people.
Sterling was the worst of the worst, and now he was young lady-ing her. Toni clenched her hands into fists until her nails bit into her palms. “I’m here because we’re at an impasse,” she said carefully. “After what happened with Hart… I think it’s time we talk.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to talk about.”
“I don’t want my family getting hurt,” she said carefully. “I don’t want there to be a national manhunt for Hart. So tell me what I need to do to get you off our backs.”
He pointed a finger at her. “Your family is the one that started this.”
She wanted to scream at him. You killed my mother! You were going to kill my sister! You started this, you crazy fucker! “You’re right,” she choked out. “And now I’m here to end it. Tell me what I need to do.”
Sterling licked his lips as he leaned forward on his elbows and looked her over. “A girl like you has many talents.”
Oh, please don’t let this be a sex thing…. “Yes…” she said cautiously.
“I have a team of people who do some more… difficult tasks for me. They could use someone with your expertise.”
Bingo. She was careful not to let any signs of victory show. “A team?” she asked, as if she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“A man is only as good as his employees, right? Of course, there’s one big problem. I don’t trust you.”
Nor should he. She stayed quiet. If she tried to defend herself too much, it would be suspicious. If she was too aloof, it would be suspicious. Silence seemed like the best option.
“But,” he continued, “I think by now you know what I’m capable of when I get angry.”
“I need to know that my family and Hart are going to be safe.”
“Your family, maybe. But Hart has proved to be rather persistent in his belief that I’ve wronged him somehow.”
Calm. Remain calm. “I took care of Hart. He’s going to be out of town for the next few months. I’ll make sure he stays away for good.” By then, Sterling should be long gone. But she couldn’t exactly tell him that.
“And you expect me to take your word for this.” Sterling looked her up and down.
“No. I expect you to test me.” She glanced out of the corner of her eye to the guy who was standing silently. Had he been through this same initiation? Had he made the same promises? What had kept him from ever turning on his boss? Was he truly loyal or did Sterling still have dirt on him? Those were questions she might very well never know the answer to.
Sterling took out a sticky note and scribbled something down before he handed it over to her. “Go to this location tonight by eight p.m. Bring clothes. You’ll be staying for a while. If you don’t show up, there is no deal. This is a one-time offer of leniency from me and that’s not an offer I give regularly. Do we understand each other?”
Toni looked at the address he wrote down. It seemed to be one of the suburbs outside of Chicago. “I got it.” She stood. She gave a quick nod to the silent man in the corner but didn’t say good-bye to Sterling. She didn’t owe him any pleasantries.
The man didn’t nod back, but Toni didn’t read much into his reaction, or lack thereof. She was too relieved to make it out of the office and to the elevator. She was well aware that there could be cameras watching her every move, so she kept her face blank and expressionless the entire ride down and on her march out of the lobby.
Once she was on the street, the nerves took over. The fear she’d suppressed all morning came to her full force. Her hands trembled and her knees were shaky. She focused on walking in a straight line, one foot in front of the other. She’d seen him. She’d looked Sterling right in the eye and she hadn’t told him what she really thought. She hadn’t attacked him. Nothing. She’d played the good little girl and asked for leniency.
But she would get her revenge. She just needed to play her cards right. If she made her move at that office, his bodyguard never would’ve let her get a chance to pull out a weapon. Then Sterling would still be alive and she’d be dead, which would be a shit show.
Her plan was solid. Her plan would work. She repeated that mantra over and over until she reached her hotel. When she opened her door and was ready to use her last few hours of freedom to relax and decompress, she realized she was never going to get that chance.
Because in the middle of her king-size bed, Scott Hart was taking a nap.