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THE RELUCTANT THIEF: Chapter Four
“You have to be kidding me.”
“Nope.” Scott opened one eye to see Toni staring at him with a look of utter disgust. “You didn’t really think I was going to let you get rid of me that easily, did you?”
“Easy! What the hell did you think was easy about yesterday?”
She had a point there. But he’d had a bit of time to think after she dropped him off at the train station. It was too convenient. Everyone had been in Chicago on Friday and all of a sudden they were dispersed all over the country? And now she was sending him away even though she was certain he wasn’t going to be on America’s Most Wanted or the twenty-four-hour news?
No, she was planning something. And considering that she was sending her family, her very capable badass family, as far away from her as possible, that meant she was planning something stupid.
Not only would Jennifer and Melody kill him if he let anything bad happen to Toni, but he owed it to Isobel to watch over her daughter. He was half the reason Isobel had ended up dead. The least he could do was make sure her legacy, no matter how morally dubious, lived on.
“I think you owe me the truth about what you’re doing here.”
“I don’t owe you a damn thing.” She kicked off her shoes and walked toward the desk. She seemed to abruptly change her mind about sitting down and paced back toward the door. “Get off my bed,” she demanded. “I’m taking a nap. And get out of my room, while you’re at it. How did you even get in here?”
“I told the guy up front I lost my key. He wasn’t very thorough.”
“Son of a—I hate this hotel,” she muttered. “Doesn’t that kind of thing go against your moral code?”
“You go against my moral code,” he said in a deadpan voice. How often had he had to make exceptions for Toni’s questionable methods? But at least she’d been open before instead of sneaking around. “Tell me what is going on.”
“Nothing is going on. Now leave my room before I make you leave.”
That had him opening his eyes. “How exactly are you going to make me leave?”
“I’ll….” She drifted off without answering.
He wondered whether that meant she couldn’t think of a way or whether the ideas going through her head were too violent for his delicate ears. Toni was hard to read. She always held her cards too close to the vest. Which was exactly why he wasn’t leaving. He wanted to respect her personal space and all, but damn it, he just didn’t trust her right now.
“If you want a nap, you’re just going to have to deal with me being here because I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
“I’m not sharing a bed with you!” she half yelled and half squeaked.
Scott frowned. He hadn’t meant it like that. There was just one bed in the room, and considering it was a big bed, he hadn’t really thought much of it.
“It’s not fair for you to show up like this and take over all my space and—” Toni stopped talking and instead sat on the edge of the bed, facing the wall away from him, and he could tell she was taking deep, calming breaths. He debated moving onto the floor, but there were no extra blankets in the room, and judging from the rest of the hotel, he didn’t want to share the floor with however many bugs were also making the place their home.
“I’m not trying to piss you off,” he said carefully.
She pulled back the blankets and climbed under, still facing away from him. “I’m in bed in jeans, thanks to you. I hope you’re happy. I never sleep in jeans. No one in their right mind would sleep in jeans.”
He couldn’t argue with that. “You don’t have pajama pants?”
“I don’t sleep in bottoms!” she snapped. Then, a second later, there was a bunch of rustling from beneath the covers. She threw the jeans away from her and they hit the wall right next to the tube TV on the dresser. “Screw you. I don’t have to change a thing about how I live because you want to be an ass.”
“I don’t want to be an ass. I want to know the truth. What are you doing?”
She was quiet as she adjusted the pillow under her head and pulled the comforter up to her neck so she was cocooned.
He turned to face her back and willed her to tell him what he wanted to know. “Toni—”
“Shut up.” There was a bunch more rustling before she tossed something else against the wall. It wasn’t until it fell on top of the jeans that he realized it was a bra.
Somehow, when she’d taken off her jeans, he hadn’t put much thought into it. But knowing she was just in a t-shirt and panties made the whole thing more… intimate. He felt his cock harden and he closed his eyes, trying to regain control of his body. It was just a natural response. It had been too long since he’d been with a woman, and the thought of being so close to a half-naked one, no matter who she was, was apparently a trigger for him.
The erection refused to leave, so he decided to pretend nothing strange was happening. “I thought we were in this together,” he said finally, trying a different angle.
That must’ve gotten through to her because she rolled over to face him, still almost completely cocooned in the ugly purple patterned comforter. “We were in this together. That was before Sterling knew what we all looked like and that we were all coming for him. What are you going to do, Scott? We’ve played all our cards and we haven’t won a hand lately.”
“I would believe that if you weren’t being so damn sneaky. You have an ace up your sleeve that you’re not telling me and that’s terrifying.”
She raised an eyebrow as she looked him over. “You worried about me, Hart?”
“I owe it to your family to keep you safe.” Her lips tightened and he could tell she wasn’t happy with that answer. What had she wanted him to say? “Yes, I’m worried about you.”
She scoffed and turned onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m going to end it, Scott. I’m going to kill Sterling.”
“We’re going to do it together,” he insisted.
She shook her head. “No. That time has passed. He knows who you are. He knows who I am. We don’t have any more friends. I talked to him today.”
He thought he misheard her. “What?”
“I walked right into the building I knew he was working at and asked to speak to Sterling. I was escorted into his office and I looked him right in the eye.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Nothing is wrong with me. I see the truth for the first time in so long. I know exactly what we have to do.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
She rolled to her side to look at him. “No. I’m going to go to work for him. I’m going to gain his trust. And the second I see an opening, I’m going to do it. I’m going to kill Jonathan Sterling.”
Toni had to admit that she’d imagined being in bed with Scott thousands of times in the past, but never under these circumstances. And she had to admit that if she wasn’t under this kind of duress, she probably wouldn’t have been spilling the beans so easily.
But Scott had a way of messing with her mind under the best circumstances. Now that she was all horizontal with him, it was much harder to keep her head on straight.
“How exactly are you going to kill him?” he asked carefully.
At least he hadn’t freaked out. That was a plus. But she could already see the wheels turning as he tried to figure out how to talk her out of this.
“I told him that I wanted him to lay off my family. In return, I was going to work for him.” He opened his mouth, but she continued, trying to get her reasons on the table before he told her how stupid she was being. “I know he assembled some of his employees through blackmail and dirty means. And I know that I’m one of the best at what I do. He would be chomping at the bit to get me on his payroll. After what he did this weekend, he proved that he’s willing to kill whoever he needs to in order to get us off the table. So I acted like I was scared and realized I was up against something too powerful because bad guys love flattery. So I’m going to a designated location today and I’m assuming I’ll be shown the inner workings of Sterling’s operation.”
Instead of yelling at her or telling her how idiotic her idea was, he just nodded. “That simple, huh?”
She tightened her lips and got firmly in defensive mode. “I know it’s not going to be easy. He’s going to try to test me and cut me off from everyone. But I don’t need anyone to do this, Scott. I’m strong. And I’m dangerous.”
“You are dangerous,” he said, surprising her. “You’re dangerous from behind a keyboard.” There it was. “Have you ever killed a person?”
Toni clenched her jaw. “No. But this is the man who killed my mother. I think I can figure it out.”
“You think? You’re not going to have time to think. You’re going to have a split second to do something that is going to change your life forever, and you’re going to be all alone. And that’s assuming Sterling doesn’t get what he wants from you and kill you before you have the chance.”
“Don’t bullshit me. If our situations were reversed, you’d go through the same crisis. The difference between you and me is that I know what I am. I’m the daughter of a criminal. The sister of a criminal. A thief. Through and through. I’ve always been one of the bad guys. In fact, killing Sterling might be one of the least bad things I ever do in my life. What about you, Boy Scout? You’re used to being the good guy. The one who helps little old ladies cross the street. So you’re going to get your hands dirty with Sterling? I don’t care what an angel your wife was—this kind of stink don’t wash off too easily. At least I’m used to it already.”
He was quiet, but she could see a muscle tic in his jaw, signaling that she’d gotten through to him. “I’ll be able to do what needs to be done,” he said simply.
“So will I.” They were both quiet then, at a bit of an impasse.
Toni hooked an arm underneath the pillow to prop her head up a little bit. She could tell Scott wanted to fight her more, but she knew there was nothing he could say. They were so different in most ways and so alike in others.
And he knew it was going to take a hell of a lot of convincing to get her to change her mind.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he disagreed with her goal. He wanted Sterling dead too, no matter what the cost.
Toni didn’t think she fell asleep, but when she checked her phone, it was five p.m. Somehow she had managed to doze off. She looked over at Scott. He was in the exact same position, with his eyes closed. He seemed too tense to be sleeping, but she wasn’t sure he ever really relaxed.
Toni carefully pushed the comforter back and started to inch out of the bed.
“You’re not sneaking out of this room,” warned Scott.
“I know.” She gave up all pretense of silence and sat up, belatedly remembering that she wasn’t wearing pants. She debated covering herself with the sheet but remembered that Scott was still weighing it down. She could grab a pillow but, if anything, that would bring more attention to her ass.
For the love of— They’d just had a serious conversation about murdering someone. Really, a little PG-13 skin was hardly something to get embarrassed about. Besides, Scott had more than proved he didn’t give a damn about her body.
She stalked over to where her jeans were and started to pull them on. She meant to be cool, as if it were no big deal, but she found herself looking over her shoulder to where Scott was on the bed, expecting him to be lying serenely still. But to her surprise, her eyes met his. She froze for half a second before she snapped out of it and pulled her pants up the rest of the way.
It was probably a fluke. She’d moved and he’d happened to look in that direction. It wasn’t like Scott to check out her ass.
Pushing all the out-of-place thoughts firmly in their place, she got to work packing her few belongings in her oversized suitcase. If she had to leave quickly, she could grab her laptop and make a run for it, but she really preferred to travel in style. Namely, every different type of style available to her.
That was coming in handy considering she had no idea how long she’d be wherever she was going. Though if they killed her right away, she really wouldn’t need that many clothes at all.
No, she had to stop thinking like that. If Sterling had wanted her dead, he could’ve taken care of her right in the middle of his office and there was nothing anyone could’ve done. He obviously had the cops in the palm of his hand, so even if there were fifteen witnesses who saw his guy carry her dead body out, Sterling would go on living his lavish lifestyle.
As unsettling as that thought was, she clung to the logic that Sterling wouldn’t go out of his way to send her back to her hotel and then go to the location where he was going to kill her.
She’d never fully unpacked, so it only took a few minutes to get everything put away and zipped up.
Scott sat up on the bed. “Where are we going?”
“We’re not going anywhere. If you show your face anywhere near Sterling or his guys, they’re going to shoot you in the head.”
“But you’re safe?”
Toni ran her fingers through her hair as she turned to face him. “Sterling needs me.”
“Really? What does he need you for?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re not good at this whole debate thing.”
She rolled her eyes. “Listen…. What I’m capable of….” No, that wasn’t right. She tried again. “The things I can do with a keyboard and Internet connection aren’t easily teachable, okay? Sterling knows that. He thinks he can use my love for my family as leverage over me to get me to do what he needs.”
“There’s a problem with that theory,” said Scott.
There were about fifty problems with it, but Toni was refusing to think about it. “It will be fine,” she said, soft enough for them both to know she wasn’t all that sure about it.
“The problem,” continued Scott, “is that Sterling can use your family as leverage against you.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to get to him before he can get to me then.”
“I’m not going to let you go in alone.”
She studied him and tried to figure out what he meant by that. Obviously, the literal meaning was clear, but was he just saying that because he felt some obligation to her family to keep her safe? Or was he really worried about her?
Toni winced and shook her head. What a stupid thought. She needed to get over this stupid crush and figure out what to do about Scott. She couldn’t afford this kind of distraction right now. “You can’t mess this up for me,” she said finally.
“Mess this up for you? You’re putting yourself directly in the line of fire, but somehow I’m the one messing things up for you?”
“You’re a distraction, Scott! You’re a distraction I can’t afford. If anyone is going to get me killed, it’s going to be you.”
“You’re so full of it.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “You’ve given up your entire life on your little quest for revenge. But yeah, I’m full of it. Get off your damn high horse, Scott. I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing this for my mother. And, believe it or not, I’m doing this for you too. So get the hell out of my room and leave me alone.”
She expected him to yell at her more or list out the reasons she was going to get killed or, even worse, call and tell her sisters on her. But to her utter shock, he held up two hands as if in defeat before he pushed past her and walked out of the room. She stood motionless for a good thirty seconds, just staring at the door, waiting to see whether she’d just imagined the whole thing. Had it really been that easy to get Scott to give her space?
He had to have something up his sleeve. Maybe he put a tracker on her? But where the hell would he get a tracker? She was the one who set stuff like that up for him. He’d just gotten out of jail a day ago. Hardly enough time to set up a base of operations. Or even get a laptop to use.
She’d think he was working with someone else, but he didn’t have any friends in Chicago and she’d been keeping tabs on Melody and Jennifer. As soon as they’d confirmed that the police had no evidence on Scott, they’d scattered and left Chicago.
The only other option was that he was going to manually follow her, but he was in for a surprise.
She was going to make damn sure that it was impossible for anyone to tail her where she was going.
Scott opened his hand and looked at the address he’d scrawled out with the hotel-provided pen. He knew that the longer he stayed arguing with Toni, the further he’d get from where he wanted to go. But she didn’t know that, while she was sleeping, he’d taken a few minutes to rummage through her stuff, including the pockets of her jeans. If she were anyone else, he’d feel guilty, but it was hard to feel guilty when he knew his rummaging might be the only thing standing between her and a bullet in the head.
But she wasn’t completely wrong. If he followed her, he would undoubtedly be in a hell of a lot of danger. He didn’t really have a choice, though. He couldn’t let her go off and get herself killed while he just sat back and twiddled his thumbs. He didn’t think he’d be capable of that under any circumstances, let alone when she was going after Sterling.
He wanted in on this, no matter the danger. He turned the key in the ignition of the car he’d rented with the fake ID that Toni had provided and pulled onto the busy street. He’d beat Toni to her destination and she’d never even know he was there.