Blood and Roses (Shadow Stalkers #3) : Chapter 1
“Jennifer promised me all sorts of sexual favors if I buy her one of those.” Chad Ward jerked his thumb toward the diner’s window, gesturing at a sleek convertible Jaguar that was pulling in across the street. “She got pretty inventive with her suggestions. Inspired me to look one up online.”
Jake Monroe’s gaze narrowed as he eyed the red sports car, awareness rippling down his spine.
“You have to custom order one like that,” Chad went on, returning his attention to topping off Jake’s coffee. “I’d do it for Jenn, if I could; but the diner doesn’t bring in that much dough. Who in hell spends a hundred and fifty grand on a car?”
“Rich, paunchy bald guys who hope to get laid by women young enough to be their daughters.” Jake knew someone else who would. Knew her as well as any man could know his woman. Which was why he was certain she wouldn’t have come back to Whisper Creek after all these years without bringing trouble with her.
As the driver’s side door of the Jag swung open, his attention remained riveted. The ragtop was up, shielding the occupant, but he knew exactly who was going to step out by the flare of heat that raced over his skin. “And someone like her.”
One long, black trouser-clad leg extended to the asphalt, then the driver unfolded in a graceful rise. Her blouse was black, too, making a stark contrast to the wild red curls pulled back at her nape. She looked cool and restrained, but he knew the woman inside that exterior was anything but. His body tensed and hardened with primal recognition, his breathing deep and slightly quickened.
“Well, well,” Chad murmured, straightening. “Can’t miss that hair, can you? And she’s parked right in front of Tilly’s shop. I haven’t seen Ana in... Shit. How long’s it been now?”
“Almost ten years.” Nine years, five months, and a couple weeks. It just pissed Jake off that he was still counting down the damn days since Anastasia Miller had driven out of his life without looking back.
“Hmm.” Chad shook his head. “Wonder if she got what she was after when she left.”
Had she? Was it possible she’d found what she was looking for with some other guy in some other place in the world? “Good question.”
Ana pulled a satchel out from behind the driver’s seat, then shut the door of her expensive toy. She paused, her head turning as if she sensed Jake’s gaze on her. She wore big dark sunglasses, effectively shielding her eyes.
Her lips were just like he remembered. Full and pink, and capable of blowing his mind. He’d felt those lips all over his body, still felt them sometimes when he was lying in bed at night, stiff and aching from wanting her.
Rolling her shoulders back, she moved toward the entrance to Tilly’s Yarn Shop with a swift, determined stride. She disappeared through the door and not five minutes later, the ladies who gathered there for tea and gossip came hustling out with their knitting bags. The open sign on the door flipped over to read Please Call Again and the shade that covered the inset glass was yanked down.
Jake picked up his coffee, considering. “I’ll need the check, Chad.”
“Anastasia! My god, baby, I had no idea you’d be coming home.”
Ana stared hard at her mother, silently challenging that lie, but Tilly Miller acted as if she didn’t notice her daughter’s frustration and suspicion.
“Let me see you.” Tilly approached with her arms outstretched and pulled Ana close for a hug. “You look like you’re heading to a funeral.”
“I may yet,” Ana said grimly.
“Are you talking about your work?”
“I’m talking about your work, Mom. Your life’s dream. I’m just here to clean up after you.”
Tilly stepped back and smoothed a hand over hair that had once been the same vibrant red as her daughter’s, but was now a faded strawberry, sprinkled liberally with white strands. She looked the part of a small-town shopkeeper. Only another world-class thief and grifter would recognize her for what she really was.
“I made a new pot of tea just before you arrived. Why don’t you sit and we’ll talk? It’s been so long since you’ve been home.”
“We don’t have time to play this game.” Ana crossed her arms, her anger simmering. “Frankie’s life is in danger, Mom.”
Like their parents, her brother Frank had the same need for the rush, the same fascination for the bright and shiny and illegal. Ana supposed it was in their blood. Inevitable, considering she was named after a famous identity con and Frank was named after an infamous con artist.
What a question. Her mother was good at pretending to be clueless. “I know he and Eric would’ve wanted to go into the heist with blanks, but their associate was using live rounds,” Ana said tersely. “Whoever he is, he’s a wild card.”
“You were always so good at dramatizing things, dear.” Her mother sank into one of the mismatched chairs arranged in a circle near an unlit woodstove.
Ana had to consciously relax her jaw to speak. “You know you’ll
never be able to fence those diamonds. You knew it when you set this up. The Crown is too distinctive.”
Tilly poured tea as if she hadn’t a care in the world. “The Crown of Roses.” She sighed. “So rare to find any diamond of that deep pink color, but an entire tiara’s worth? Has the piece been stolen?”
“Cut the crap, Mom. Do you think I’ve forgotten how you talked about the ’94 Carlton heist in France? This job in Manhattan was textbook Tilly Miller... until the guard got shot.”
Digging into her briefcase, Ana yanked out a tablet and tossed it on an empty chair beside her mom’s. “I bought that for you. Look at the newspaper apps on there and read the reports. Did you know that jewelry shop is a Cross Industries property? Gideon Cross has offered a quarter-million dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of the thieves. I’ve been told that amount will increase to half a million if the guard dies.”
Finally, Tilly paled. “Is he that bad off?”
“He had body armor on, but he took two hits: one to the shoulder and another to the thigh. That second hit nicked his femoral artery.”
“Dear god...” Her mother sucked in a shaky breath. “You know Frankie would never go along with anything like that. The guard... was it Terence Parker?”
“Yes.” Ana gripped the back of an old wicker chair. “I already figured out Terence was your inside man. And it’s obvious the shooter wanted him out of the way. A three-way split is much more lucrative. But why not make it a two-way split? Or better yet, take it all. Frank, Eric, Terence, and someone else. Who’s the other guy, Mom?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you. You had this planned down to the second.” Tilly and Bill Miller were known to spend years planning a job that would take only seconds to pull off. Ana was afraid that since her dad had died, her mom had focused on the heist to bury her grief. And she’d dragged Frankie into it with her.
Tilly looked at her with stricken eyes. “There was no fourth guy in the plan. Just Terence, Frankie, and Eric. You know it’s safer to keep the number of people involved to the bare minimum.”
Ana knew neither Frankie nor Eric would’ve deviated. Tilly would’ve trained them better than that. Most likely Terence had brought in someone to guard his interests, someone he’d thought he could trust... and ended up paying for it.
“Jesus, Mom. The shooter is going to turn on Frankie and Eric the first chance he gets, if he hasn’t already. I need to get to him before that happens.”
Tilly picked up her teacup and saucer, the china rattling as her hands shook. “Are you here for the reward or the gems?”
“You know why I’m here. You knew I’d come, because you knew who the insurer was before you went after the diamonds. That was part of the fun. I’m sure you figured there’d be no harm done—you mastermind your perfect heist, Frank follows in dad’s footsteps by pulling it off, your daughter claims five percent of the take in a legitimate finder’s fee, and the owner gets their gems back.”
“No one was supposed to get hurt,” Tilly breathed, looking stricken.
“Someone always gets hurt, Mom. They don’t make stealing illegal just to spoil your fun.” Sighing, Ana pinched the bridge of her nose. “When were Frankie and Eric supposed to show up here?”
“Not for a week.” Tilly met her gaze with unusual somberness. “We knew the insurance company would bring you in on this, and we didn’t want any lines being drawn between there and here and you.”
“Thanks,” Ana said sourly.
“Frank’s not even supposed to call until he gets down to Florida. He and Eric planned on stretching the trip out over a few days.”
Crossing her arms, Ana snapped, “No matter how clever you are, you went into this knowing I could face prosecution along with you. By not turning you in, I could be seen as an accessory after the fact. And if I took the finder’s fee and Frankie’s involvement ever got out, I’d have a hell of a time arguing that I wasn’t a participant in a multi-million dollar fraud against the insurance company.”
“Jake would never let that happen,” Tilly argued.
“He isn’t God, Mom,” Ana muttered, her stomach knotting at the thought of facing her high school sweetheart again. Jake Monroe—a man she’d never gotten over. “I’ll have to talk to him. Maybe Eric’s contacted him. I’d expect it, considering how protective Jake is.”
“Will you be staying in Whisper Creek until this is worked out?”
“I’ll be staying tonight, at least. If Terence survives—God willing—I’ll be heading back to Manhattan to see him. And if I sniff out any leads on who Terence might’ve brought in as the fourth, I’ll take off to pursue those. How’s the Wi-Fi at the house?”
“Still not good. I use the computer here at the shop when I need reliable internet access.”
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