MADISON CRUZ MYSTERY #4
When you plan a hit on an art collection, it doesn’t help to have the hots for your co-thief. Madison’s motive may be to help him stay honest and out of trouble, but his past is far more tangled than she realized. Keeping this all a secret gets complicated when her FBI mother and KGB grandmother play tug-of-war with the truth. With all the arguing going on, no one has noticed a deadly new force has arrived… and is watching.
READ AN EXCERPT
Madison couldn’t see a damn thing in the dark, but that didn’t stop her. She had the prize in her hands. She buried it in her tote bag.
The weight of what she was doing made her heart race. She needed to get out of here.
Reaching in the shadows, her hands bumped, patted, and felt the expensive furnishings of the Culver Reagan executive boardroom, helping her get her bearings once again. Every dark shape took on a menace; every touch felt intimate, as if she violated the fine furniture. She hurried for the door then stopped, her heart in her throat. This was not smart. She should put it back. She’d made a spontaneous decision, and although it was going easier than expected, she hadn’t counted on the fear of getting caught.
Madison turned, fumbling her way back toward the wall where she’d taken the small framed sketch. She stopped again. No, this idea could work. It could totally work — she just needed to commit to it. Besides, was it wrong to steal something that was stolen? How could it be wrong to fix a wrong and make it right? Although making it right might be wrong if you didn’t do the wrong kind of right… wait… if the wrong was wrong instead of… Ugh! How did she get into these messes?
The dragon sketch was already in her tote bag. She might as well see it through.
Madison turned again, rushing for the door, but bumped her thigh on something pointy. Ouch! If only she’d brought a flashlight — but she hadn’t planned this. The lights should stay off so no one would suspect her presence. Rubbing her thigh, she took a deep breath. What if someone noticed the sketch was gone before she could get out of the building? What if they searched her bag? Why did this make so much sense ten minutes ago? She told herself to shut up and put it back. End of discussion.
She fumbled in the dark, back to the wall, and yanked the framed sketch from her tote bag. She tried to re-hang it but she couldn’t get the wire on the back of the frame to make contact with the picture hook. Repeatedly scraping the frame down the wall, she worried she might leave marks. She hated the thought of marring anything in this beautiful art deco building.
Yesterday, she’d sat with everyone in here as they’d gone over the details of tonight’s fashion show. That was when she noticed the sketch of a dragon on the wall, and recognized the artist’s signature. As the planning for the fashion show concluded, everyone was excited. No one, including herself, knew that tonight she would decide to be a criminal by proxy.
What was that? She froze. A soft footstep. Someone was right outside in the hallway. In a panic, she rammed the small frame back into her tote while she hurried to where she knew the two tall cabinets stood against the wall. She felt the space between the cabinets, thankful she could fit in. A soft metallic click told her a doorknob on the right side of the room had turned. She ducked down between the cabinets, in the deepest shadows.
A soft light burst forth, and died just as suddenly. The door had opened, spilling light from the hallway, but shut so quickly she wasn’t sure if someone had entered or not. No light turned on.
She held perfectly still, straining to hear, hoping her dark hair and clothes kept her unseen in the shadows that surrounded her. From her hiding place she tried to watch for movement in the room, but none of the shapes looked human. With her elbow pressing the tote bag to her side, she didn’t move an inch. She waited.
There it was. Slow movement on the right side of the room. It stopped. Whoever it was, the person was holding still, just like her. Her heart pounded but she had to keep her breathing as silent as possible. The dark mass moved again, crossing from the right side of the room to the left. Uncomfortably close, it passed her.
How could she be so stupid? She was supposed to do a simple modeling job for a local charity, and go home to leftover pizza. Maybe watch a little TV, and go to bed. But no, she had to indulge in vigilante justice. If she got caught it could end her ability to find work. No one would want to hire her when they heard she took something while on the job at Culver Reagan. And here Culver Reagan had donated the use of their beautiful facility tonight for Drive-By Design, a charity fashion show. The tackiness of her five-minute life of crime made her cringe. Her agent, Phil, might even have to drop her. But worst of all, it would prove her mother was right. Damn it!
A normal person would’ve stayed out of it. A normal person would still be in the Culver Reagan auditorium. But then again, a normal person wouldn’t be dating an art thief.
More soft metallic sounds, but this time from her left. The other doorknob turned. The other person was leaving! A sliver of light appeared on the floor directly in front of the cabinets she hid between, growing wider as the door opened. She pushed deeper into shadow, frightened of the growing illumination.
The door softly closed and the air burst from her lungs, the pent-up adrenaline causing her to breath heavily. Damn it, she shouldn’t have looked at the shaft of light on the floor. Now she’d have to work up her night vision again. Still between the cabinets, she stood and buried her face in her hands, taking deep breaths, trying to get a grip.
She dropped her hands, looking up. The room was dark once again, but this time the dark mass was right in front of her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Xander’s voice was soft and quiet, but there was an edge of anger in his tone.
“Oh!” She choked. “Geez.” Her hand flew to her heart. She inhaled and released it in a rush. “You scared me!”
Yup, he was angry, but she didn’t care. He had a lot of nerve.
“I should ask you the same thing,” she half-whispered, lifting her chin. “I told you I won’t see you if you’re going to steal.” She waited a moment but he didn’t say anything. She couldn’t make out the expression on his face. She could barely make out where his eyes were. His lips were another thing. She knew exactly where they were, because his lips suddenly covered hers.
His kiss brought a collision of comfort and confusion within her. What kind of a comeback was this? His natural scent filled her head, while his body warmth drew her.
She managed to regain her resolve, and pull away. “That’s not fair.”
“You’re trying to confuse me.”
“I could’ve sworn I was trying to kiss you.”
“It’s not going to work.”
He ran the backs of his fingers down her cheek. “I must be losing my touch.”
He hadn’t lost a thing. Rattled, she hiked the straps of her black tote bag higher on her shoulder. “I’m serious.”
He huffed, like a laugh cut off. “You shouldn’t make threats you don’t mean.”
“Saying you wouldn’t see me if I continued this.”
“So you’re admitting it? That’s why you’re here?”
He gently tapped the tip of her nose. “It’s so much more interesting to know why you’re here.”
She jerked her head back. “How can you see so well in the dark?”
“The kiss is wearing off and I’m getting mad again. What are you doing here, Madison?”
It drove her crazy the way he could do that. He’d just turned this around, making her look as if she were doing something wrong.
But she was. Kind of. Wasn’t she?
She huffed in return, trying to look him in his blue eyes. Or was that his eyebrow? “I’m here because I’m trying to stop you from picking up where you left off when you were caught. You can’t be arrested for theft if it’s not here to steal.”
He was quiet for a moment, but when he spoke again, she could hear his smile. A wicked smile, no doubt. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You came here to steal back my artwork for me? So that I can’t steal it myself?”
“You don’t have to make it sound so—”
“And it’s because you don’t want to be with me if I’m a naughty boy who steals?”
She heard his suppressed laughter, and felt her face flush. “Don’t use that smug tone with me.”
Now his voice sounded relaxed. “Look. You saw my work in here. A dragon wearing spectacles. Yes, or no?”
Her voice softened. “I was proud.” She blinked in the dark. “I didn’t know it was stolen.”
“I’ve just come to get it back, that’s all.”
“If someone took your tote bag, and you saw it in their car, and the car was unlocked—”
“I get what you’re saying but it’s different for you. You have to be careful.”
He placed a finger on her forehead, tracing down over her nose and lips. “They have nothing on me.”
“Can we please go, and fight about it later? This isn’t going to work if we get caught.”
“We? Oh, I’m liking this more and more.”
Irritated beyond patience, she gripped the straps of her tote bag till her fingers hurt. “I swear, there’s no reasoning with you. This isn’t a game! You act so arrogant, you drive me freaking nuts.”
He suddenly backed her up, the last few inches into the wall. Caught off guard, she gasped as he firmly pinned her with the length of his body. It was infuriating for him to be so intimate and dominant at a time like this, and she almost said so. But she was afraid he might stop.
“Who drives who crazy? You little idiot, you don’t know what you’re doing. You should’ve stayed out of it.”
“And let you get caught?”
“I could’ve found it and been gone by now.”
“I already have it. But I was trying to put it back when you interrupted me.” Faint voices in the distance came to her ears and she turned her head. “Oh no.” She pushed them both away from the wall.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Can’t you hear that? We have to get out of here fast.”
She held her hands out, feeling the empty dark, stumbling across the room. But he quickly put an arm around her, turned her a different direction, and rushed them both to a door. They quickly stepped through it, greeted by dim hallway light. Soft voices echoing from around the corner told her she’d run out of time if she wanted to leave unseen. Grabbing Xander’s hand, she yanked him away from the voices, to another room further down the hall.
“There’s no exit there,” he said, but she whirled on him, putting her hand over his mouth and a finger to her own lips. The voices grew louder, closer, and Xander’s eyes widened with comprehension.
Madison pulled him to an unlocked door, and they silently slipped into an office. It had expensive furniture for casual meetings on one side of the room, and a huge desk on the other side. The wheeled clothing racks were clearly not part of the normal décor. Hair accessories, shoes, pins, and multiple spools of thread in various colors covered the coffee table. Garment bags were scattered throughout the room.
“Culver Reagan let us use this for one of the dressing rooms,” she said. “I’m supposed to have left already. We’ll need a reason to be here.” Fretful, she slung the tote bag onto a long desktop table, digging inside. “Try to look bored,” she said quickly, pulling out a hair brush. “You’re anxious to go and annoyed that I’ve lost something.” The voices arrived just outside the door. She shoved the hair brush under an empty garment bag draped across a couch.
The door opened.
A tall gorgeous young woman in a form fitting red gown came into the room, her brown hair swept to one side. Her arms reached behind her back as she struggled with a zipper.
A short stocky man with a shaved head and earrings followed her, carrying several garments on hangers. As he entered, his rapid-fire chatter filled the room. “Mollie, stop! Let me do that. That zipper’s barely in there as it is, and I’m out of red thread.” His eyes darted to Madison. “Madison, you’re a glutton for punishment. What are you still doing here?”
“Hey, Breez,” said Madison, though he hadn’t stopped talking.
“Mollie, I said to wait! Honestly, Madison, if I were you I’d be home by now with my feet up and a glass of wine. Oh, who’s this handsome devil? Mollie! For god’s sake, don’t you dare hurt my gown. Give me a moment to hang these up, or so help me. My lord, Madison, I wish I had your green eyes. Isn’t Mollie amazing in that gown? It’s like she was born for it.”
“Lucky girl,” said Madison, amazed that he finally took a breath.
Mollie stood still, facing Madison, and let her arms fall limp. She rolled her eyes like she couldn’t take much more of this.
“Would you hurry up?” Xander said, looking directly at Madison. He sighed like he was bored out of his mind. “We’re going to miss the movie.”
“But I know it’s in here somewhere,” said Madison. She knit her brows like she had to concentrate, lifting a few scarves to look under them.
“Oh, Madison, not you too,” said Breez. “Everyone’s losing things tonight. Me, I’m losing my mind, but at least they gave me the one model who’s actually built the way a model is supposed to be. Isn’t she amazing? She doesn’t look like a Mollie, though, does she? But she’s tall and skinny and I can’t ask for more. Not that you’re chopped liver, Madison. You’re gorgeous the way actresses are gorgeous, but not tall enough or built like a runway model. Your boobs aren’t tiny enough for one thing. You know it’s true. Though I’ll bet mister devil here is enthralled with you, honey, enthralled. Still, you did justice to Fiona’s designs. Actually, you did more than justice. It’s not like her designs would look good on most people, but you managed to give them the pow they were missing.”
Having hung all the garments on the portable rack, he finally stepped up to Mollie, unzipped her, and carefully lifted the gown upward. “Arms up, dear. Higher.” Mollie complied and had to bend over so the short man could pull the gown tenderly over her head, leaving her in a strapless bra and panties. Relieved to finally have the gown off, she didn’t seem to care that anyone else in the room saw her. All in a day’s work.
She yawned, sticking her long skinny legs into rumpled faded jeans, then poked her head through a baggy t-shirt, the elaborate hairstyle popping out a little fuzzy. She stepped up to a mirror on the wall, pulled pins from her hair, and massaged her scalp. “Oh god, that feels good,” she said.
Breez harrumphed at the clothing rack. “See what I mean? More missing things. I specifically told the others not to touch my homemade hangers. I made one just for this gown and it’s not here. I’m not one to say anyone is a thief, but if the bandit mask fits, wear it! I swear, it’s like no one has respect for other people’s property anymore.” He carried the gown into the hallway, still talking. “But it’s not like they’re going to stop me, oh hell no, I’m on my way baby, and the sooner they…” His voice faded away.
Madison lifted the garment bag from the couch, revealing the hair brush she’d hidden under there. “Here it is!” she said, with great relief.
“Finally,” said Xander.
Madison picked up her black tote bag, putting her brush inside.
Still facing the mirror as she brushed her hair, Mollie sighed happily. “I’m glad you were available on such short notice, Madison. You’re a breath of fresh air.”
“Breez is right. I’m not quite built for this kind of modeling, but I was happy to get the job.”
“We haven’t counted the door yet, but I’m told we were at full capacity. Drive-By Design will have a nice boost of money for the food drive. Kyle will be so pleased.”
Two more women came in, each with dark hair. One of them shrugged out of a jacket and pulled off earrings, while the other walked barefoot, carrying high heels in one hand and peeling off fake eyelashes with the other.
“I understand he’s the one who got us into the Culver Reagan building,” said Madison.
“His family owns the building,” said Mollie. “He’s my sweetie. He couldn’t be here tonight but I’m going to make sure he gets all the credit.” She picked up a picture frame from a nearby bookshelf. “He even let us use his office for the dressing room. This is him.” The photo she held showed a handsome man with brown hair. She kissed the glass of the framed photo and immediately laughed. “I can’t believe I did that. I forgot about my lipstick.” She giggled, grabbed a tissue, and tried to wipe the lipstick off the glass. Her giggling subsided as her forehead creased. “It just keeps smearing.” Her shoulders fell in defeat.
“Here, I can fix it,” said Madison, taking the frame. She picked up a nearby can of hairspray and gave the lipstick smudge a quick shot. She wiped the lipstick with the tissue. Most of it came off. She sprayed another shot of hairspray on the smudge as Xander approached with a fresh tissue in his hand.
He took the frame from her, saying “May I see that?” He stared at the photo, looking deadpan. He wiped off the rest of the smudge, leaving the glass good as new, but he held the frame a little longer. “He’s your boyfriend?” He looked up at Mollie.
“Yes, that’s Kyle. Kyle Reagan,” she said, as Xander looked back at the photo. “Do you know him?”
Xander smiled and shook his head, handing the frame back to Mollie. “It was a great show tonight.” He took Madison’s arm. “We gotta go.”
“Bye,” said Mollie. “Thanks again, Madison.”
“Say goodbye to Breez for me.” Madison looked back over her shoulder as Xander rushed her out of the room.
“Be careful,” whispered Madison to Xander. “Don’t act like you’re in a rush.”
“But I am,” he replied quietly. “I have a call to make.”
She smiled and waved at a group of women at the other end of the hall, heading toward them. Madison kept smiling as she softly said, “What happened back there?”
“The guy in the framed photo,” said Xander. “I think I know why my sketch was here.”
“So you do know him?” Madison asked, surprised.
He nodded. “He’s playing a dangerous game.”
The group of women coming down the hallway drew closer, their chatter getting louder. They carried garments, makeup cases, and clipboards with papers. One with skinny eyebrows and purple hair said, “Hey Madison, are you coming?”
Madison looked sideways at Xander, knowing both she and he needed to get out of here. “Not tonight, Stel. I’m kind of tired.”
“Oh, come on,” said Stel, her purple hair falling out of its bun. “It’s all right if you bring your boyfriend. But don’t be surprised if he’s offered a job.” She looked Xander up and down, casually assessing his body.
Xander looked at Madison, questioning.
“She’s talking about the wrap party,” said Madison, “and hiring you for the next show.” She smiled and nudged him with her elbow. “She books the models.”
He appeared to slump under the weight of tedium, looking down at the floor for a second. He blurted, “For god’s sake, Madison. Can we please just go?”
The other women looked from him to her. She had the sense they were waiting to see how she would handle it. The truth was, she didn’t know if he was staying in character as the bored boyfriend, or if his anger about the artwork colored his words.
“The baby’s tired,” she said to the women. “I need to get him home.”
Stel stifled a laugh. “Okay. But grab your paycheck before you go. I’m going to unpack them in a minute and hand them out in the dressing room.”
“I’ll load my car, get my coat, and be right back.” Madison wanted to get this tote bag with Xander’s sketch out of here. Now.
The women walked on, leaving Madison and Xander, but Madison could hear one of them say, “She has a nice problem on her hands.”
Another one said, “I could make him happy again. And again.”
Madison turned and watched them, waiting for the inevitable. They all laughed as they continued down the hall. Sure enough, a couple of them looked back, then quickly turned their heads away when they saw Madison watching them check out Xander.
“Oh, come on,” said Xander. “You’re not the jealous type.”
“No. But sometimes it’s fun to show them that I know what they’re thinking.”
His usual smirk was gone, but he took her chin and kissed her lightly. “I’d like to show you what I’m thinking, but I have some business to attend to.”
“So you’re not really mad?”
His sober expression answered her question before his words came out. “It’s not aimed at you. That’s all you need to know.”
“I need to know a lot more than that.”
He looked down, sighing. “It’s coming. It’ll all make sense, I promise.”
“Can you promise you won’t be taking anything, from anywhere, anymore?”
He tilted his head with a casual smile. “Sure.”
“That was too easy.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted to hear?”
With her tote bag hanging at her side, she put her arms around his neck, looking back and forth in those blue eyes with dark honey brows and lashes. “You can’t risk getting caught. My mom is barely civil about this subject as it is.” And having the full weight of the FBI behind her, her mom wouldn’t hesitate to use it if she could get Xander out of Madison’s life.
“I’m turning the tables on you, Cruz.” He put his arms around her waist. “No more of that bullshit like you pulled in the boardroom. You think you’re helping, but you’re not. You don’t know what you’re doing and that puts you at greater risk than it puts me.”
“Oh please. It was easy.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know.”
“I promise, if you promise.”
His smile slowly grew. “Done.” He let go. “Now look, I gotta go. Hang on to my property for now. Bring it when you come over for dinner. You need to hear me out.”
“You don’t know the whole story, Madison.”
“Because you won’t tell me.”
He blinked, and his voice grew quiet. “Well, you’re about to find out.”
She slammed the lid of her car trunk, glad to finally stow her tote bag out of sight. In the cold Seattle night, she quickly slipped into her coat. The lining was still chilled from its time in the trunk. Her shadow, like a lively silhouette on her car, played games as she moved. She stared at her shadow, silently scolding. She’d done a stupid thing tonight.
She buttoned the length of her coat, then pulled a scarf from a pocket to wrap around her neck. The street lights in the Culver Reagan parking lot buzzed their subtle protest. She asked herself for the hundredth time if she’d lost her common sense. Now that she knew more about Xander’s background, why was she with him? He felt like one of the good guys, but she could tell there was more going on. He was afraid to trust her, for one thing. That scared her a little. What could he be holding back that he’d been afraid to tell her? He said she was about to find out. But, he didn’t sound too happy about it.
As she pulled her dark silky hair out from her scarf, she looked at the art deco elegance of the Culver Reagan building. It had sixteen floors and beautiful brick work framing each window. The upper floors were leased out to a variety of businesses, and the main floor held the auditorium on the west side of the building, with connecting hallways and offices on the east side.
As she fixed her scarf and admired the building, a thought occurred to her. What if they had security cameras? She slapped her hand over her mouth as she stared at the building. What if they went over the videos and saw her entering the room? They’d see Xander entering the room, too. He’d be caught despite her risky efforts.
A second shadow on her car showed someone approaching. “Beautiful.”
She whirled around. FBI Special Agent Aaron Reed slowly closed in, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. His gaze went to the building. “I love art deco.”
Her heart leapt at the sight of him, but at this moment he was more danger than comfort. Her words came out too hastily. “What are you doing here?”
He was tall, a Latin Asian mix with creamy mocha skin. His almond eyes were striking. “Nice to see you, too.” He smiled.
She sighed, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. It’s good to see you, Aaron.” She hugged him, but felt torn. It really was good to see him, but not the ideal time to have the law nearby. She tried to hide behind a smile. “You’re my favorite crime fighter, so I assumed there was trouble.”
“How much trouble do you want?” he murmured, kissing her forehead.
Hearing his old line, she pursed her lips, trying not to giggle. Her smile became real, and she gently punched his arm. “Don’t start that again.”
She was glad Xander had left. She’d told him the whole story about Aaron, so Xander might not be comfortable seeing her with Aaron right now.
She put her hands on her hips. “Come on, what’s going on? Don’t try to tell me you’re inspecting the parking lot.”
“Maybe I have a beautiful woman on my mind.”
“Well, there were a lot of them here tonight.”
From across the parking lot a few models left the building, heading toward their cars, and calling out to her. “Madison, will we see you there?”
“Not this time,” she called. She turned back to Aaron, teasing. “See what I mean?”
He had a closed-lip smile, as if he were sharing a secret. “You know what I mean.”
She did. She wondered if he could see her blushing. He’d been a warm and passionate mistake she’d made at a time when she was sad and confused. He’d provided the encouragement she’d needed. And, well, other activities. Composing herself, she tried to look cool. “So you just happen to be walking by?”
He sighed, looking at the ground, then shook his head. “Of course not.”
She blinked. “What?” She lost her smile. “You mean…”
He looked at her. “You’re not being paranoid.”
She stared back. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She waited but he went sheepish. “Mom has you following me? For real this time?”
“You’re not supposed to know.”
Car doors slammed. Models and designers drove past them, waving at Madison, checking out Aaron. Madison tried to hide her annoyance as they passed, waving goodbye to them. Just because her mother had FBI privileges didn’t make it right.
“She’s my boss,” he said, helpless. “What am I supposed to do?”
“It’s because I’m seeing Xander Boyd, isn’t it?” She rolled her eyes. “It’s none of her damn business who I go out with. She can’t just—”
His face jerked up, eyes pinning her.
She saw it on his face. The surprise, the dismay. He didn’t know? She deflated at the thought that she’d just told him in a less-than-gentle way.
“Aaron, I’m sorry. I…” Her lips stayed parted but no words came out. She shook her head.
His eyes betrayed a flash of anger, immediately replaced by disappointment. “I thought you were over him.” He furrowed his brow, incredulous, as if the puzzle in front of him had pieces that didn’t belong. “No wonder Ann reopened his case.”
“What? But why? He hasn’t done anything.”
“Give him time.” He stared at her. “I just hope I’m the one to get him.”
“Oh Aaron, for god’s sake—”
“He has a record, Madison. You should know better.”
“He doesn’t do that anymore.” She tried to sound light, and matter-of-fact. “He just had to grow up. We all grow up eventually.” She added a shrug, but she felt her act slipping.
He drew closer, asking earnestly, “Do you have any idea what you’re getting into with him?”
Her shoulders dropped. “Of course, I do. I mean…” Damn it. She hated feeling on the spot. “It’s a little complicated, all right?”
He gently took a lock of her hair between his fingers. “I’m holding you to our rain check.”
“Aaron.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what to say.”
He took her face in his hands, looking in her eyes. “We had a rain check.”
“You said you needed time.”
“I took it. I took the time.”
“He was waiting for me.”
“So was I.”
“He’s unfinished business for me. From before I met you.”
He held her gaze. She couldn’t read him. And damn it, those eyes reminded her of other times. She pulled his hands from her face. “I’m not ready for the rain check. I may not even cash it.”
He searched her eyes. “Ever? Are you sure?”
She looked down. It tore her up to admit it. “No. No, I’m not sure.” Then it hit her. Her eyes cut to him. “Wait a minute. If my mom didn’t tell you about Xander, then why are you here?”
He turned his gaze off to the side, clearly frustrated. But emotion left his face. He shook it off. Back to business. “You need to ask her. Tell her you spotted me and you figured out I’m keeping an eye on you. She’ll tell you more if she thinks you already know.”
“Can’t you just tell me?”
He shook his head. “She acts like it’s best if I don’t know. It’s weird.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. How can you guys do your job if you’re not told everything?”
“This is unofficial. It’s a private favor. The bottom line is, she’s worried about your safety.” His eyes focused on the other end of the parking lot where more people left the building.
“So why did you reveal yourself?”
Resignation crept into his expression. “In case you saw me. I didn’t want you to think I was stalking you.”
They shared a silence for a moment.
He added, “I never told Ann about our time together.”
Madison shook her head. “Neither did I.”
Just then Breez strode into the parking lot. “Madison,” he called, “I was the last one to leave and your paycheck envelope is still on the desk. Don’t you want to be paid, sweetheart?”
“Oh geez, I completely forgot,” she said, fretful. “Did you already lock up?”
“Are you kidding? Me, be the one who locks up?” Breez stopped abruptly in front of her, his arms full of the travel bags and boxes she’d seen him use to store his sewing supplies. “That would require a level of trust that is in short supply around here. I mean how much sense does it make? I’m the victim here, I’m the one who’s been robbed, and yet they had the nerve to ask if I’d taken any hangers! I! Mean!” He shook his head. “It’s all part of the madness of life, honey. If you want any respect anymore you have to make them fear you, you know what I mean? So I just told them—”
“Thank you Breez!” She lightly hugged him with his arms full. “You’re a life saver.”
“Well, thank you sweetie, that’s a lot better than Fiona’s attitude. She’s always walking around with this emotional invoice that she thinks I’m supposed to pay, but I keep trying to tell her it doesn’t work that way.”
“Aaron, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I need that paycheck.” She ran to get into the building while she still could. As she pulled the glass door open, Aaron caught up, entering the building with her.
“Madison, I’m sorry for the way I reacted back there.”
“No, it’s my fault. I should’ve told you before now.”
They jogged through the brightly lit lobby, the custodians already vacuuming the bold geometric carpet, and buffing the diamond-patterned hard floors. Madison and Aaron quickly danced over electrical cords on the floor to get to the inner hallways.
“So why didn’t you?” asked Aaron.
She gave him a worried glance. Their steps down the hallway slowed.
“Come on, Madison, I’m trying to be a good sport here.” They turned a corner. “But I need to know if I did something wrong.”
She stopped, turning to face him. “Of course not.” She blinked up at his earnest face. “Please don’t think that. I screwed up. I shouldn’t have waited…” Her mouth opened to say more, then she caught herself. She’d better shut up. She continued down the hall.
He put his hand out to her shoulder, pulling her aside. “Then why?” he asked. “Why didn’t you contact me and let me go?”
She looked to the office door they’d used as their dressing room, just ahead. Damn it, why did she have to forget her paycheck like that? Being alone with him now made it harder to face her doubts, let alone say them out loud.
He gently turned her head to face him, his expression full of concern. “You’re not sure about him after all. Are you?”
She felt the tears trying to come. She refused to let them. She refused to admit it.
He looked longingly at her lips, but kissed her cheek. “You keep that rain check. You might need it.”
“Aaron, everything’s fine. He had a youthful lapse in judgment, that’s all. He’s not a thief.” She forced a smile and walked away, leaving him standing in the hall. She felt his eyes on her back, and his suspicions echoed in her ears.
She walked into the office to get her paycheck, but got a shock instead.
Xander bent over the upturned desk, with a pile of painted canvases curling on the floor. He appeared to be taking another painted piece from a hidden compartment underneath the desk. Parts from the desk lay nearby, and he gripped a screwdriver. He sprang to his feet in surprise, but shock settled on his face as his eyes focused behind her.
She turned, seeing Aaron with his Glock and a half-smile, taking deadly aim.
She lunged for the gun.
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