Read an Excerpt
You will meet me at The Mark at 1:30 p.m. You will wear the dress that was sent this afternoon. In this bag is the lingerie you will wear beneath the dress. This is nonnegotiable. If you do not comply, I will know. And you will be punished for it.R
Charity Wyatt looked at the very highend shopping bag that was sitting on the hall table in her entryway. It was a deep gray color, innocuous, except for the famous lingerie label printed on the side. It had matching slate tissue paper inside, and underneath the very first fold of paper was a thick white envelope with a card inside. She knew, because she had opened it. Opened it and read the instructions that were printed on it while her cheeks burned with rage.
The card was now tucked safely back into the bag. She didn't want to read it again. Once was enough.
The Mark. A clever location to ask for a meet up, since, six months ago, that was what he had been to her father. And to her.
A mark, part of a con. A mark who now had her utterly and completely at his mercy. She hated that. Hated being on the losing end. Hated being at a disadvantage.
She should have sent her dad packing when, after nearly a year of no contact, he'd breezed back into her life.
One more, Charity. Just one more.
Just one more and it would all be golden in the end. How many times had she heard that? Always with his signature wink and smile, the charm that got him everywhere in life. Oh, how she'd craved the chance to be in his circle. To be a part of him. To be valuable enough to him that he would take her everywhere. No more time spent on her grandmother's couch, wondering when her dad would be back. No more terrifying nights alone in an empty apartment while he went out and "worked."
It would all end, once he had the perfect score.
He was so good at spinning golden stories out of straw. And she wanted to walk down into the glittering world he always spoke of. Where things were easy. Where they would be together.
But it always took just one more job.
All her life, her dad had promised there would be rainbows after the storms. So far all she'd ever seen was the thunder and lightning. She had yet to get her rainbow, and this time was no exception.
In this instance, he had left her standing in a puddle, holding a lightning rod.
The minute her father had left town she'd known she was up a creek. But she'd stayed. Because she didn't have anywhere else to go. Because she had a life here. Had some friends. Had a job. And she'd been certain she would avoid detection. She always had.
Six months of silence. Six months of her life going on as it always had. Six months to get over her father's betrayal. Six months for her to forget that she had made a powerful enemy.
And now this.
It came one day after he'd made contact for the first time. A call to her cell phone from an untraceable number.
She knew what he looked like. Rocco Amari was famous, the media's favorite businessman playboy. He had model good looks, shiny cars, shinier girlfriends. Basically, everything you needed to capture the attention of the public.
She had seen him before in print images, but she had never heard his voice. Until yesterday. Until he'd made contact. She'd realized quickly that she couldn't outrun him, that she couldn't hide from him.
Not without pulling up stakes and disappearing into the night. Leaving her little apartment, her restaurant job, her small group of friends. Becoming a vapor, as she'd been in her childhood. Invisible. With few enough things to stuff them all into one bag so she and her dad could run quickly if they needed to. Then her dad could drop her at his mother's for "a while" at a moment's notice.
No. She hadn't been able to face becoming that person again. A ghost in the human world, never allowed to touch anything. Never allowed to be a part of anything.
So she'd stayed.
Which meant pulling a much more brazen con than she would like. One that would hopefully end this thing with him, and see her on her way. Free and clear. She had to go to him, convince him of her innocence.
But he hadn't been playing by her rules. And then he'd finally called.
"We've never spoken before, but you know who I am. Rocco, Rocco Amari. You have something that belongs to me, my pretty little thief." His voice was deep, his Italian heritage evident in each syllable. It was the kind of voice that seemed to have a flavor all its own, something smoky, like Scotch and cigars. It curled itself around her, around her throat, made it difficult for her to speak.
"I am not a thief," she said, injecting a note of ringing conviction into her voice. "My father is a con man and he"
"Andyou are his accomplice," he said, the certainty in his voice squashing the false ring of conviction in hers.
"I need to explain. He lied to me. I didn't know what I was doing!"
"Yes, yes. Very nice, hysterical cries about your innocence. However, I find myself unmoved."
She bit her lip, trying to force herself to feel persecuted, to call up everything she 'd felt when her father had left. So that he could hear a truth that wasn't there. "But I didn't mean to steal anything from you."
"And yet, I find myself short a million dollars. And your father is nowhere to be found. Things must be made right."
"If I could get hold of my father, I would see that he returned the money." Even though she knew it had been put into other assets by now.
"But you can't get hold ofyour father, can you? " No. No she couldn't. Even if she could, she doubted he 'd be on hand to bail her out of trouble by putting his own neck on the chopping block. He 'd left her to deal with this on purpose.
"However," Rocco continued, "I find that I have a suggestion foryou
"Yes, but I do not discuss important business on the phone. You will receive instructions tomorrow. Follow them, or I will change my mind. And I will press charges. And you, Ms. Wyatt, will spend quite a few years in jail for fraud and theft."
* * *
And that was how she found herself here. With these instructions, with this bag, with the dress that was still sitting in its garment bag, because she was afraid to look at it.
But then, ignoring it wouldn't make it go away. Ignoring Rocco wouldn't make him go away. Wouldn't remove the threat that had been placed on her freedom.
She would have to go to the meeting. She would have to comply with his instructions.
And after that, she had no idea what she would do. Her eyes fell to the lingerie bag again. A shiver of disgust wound down her spine. She didn't know what his offer would be, but a suspicion was starting to form. One that didn't sit well at all. One that, now it had entered her mind, would not be removed.
It was silly, of course, because she couldn't imagine why he would want her in lieu of a million dollars or justice. But there was lingerie. That fact remained.
No matter what her concerns, she had no choice but to comply.
It was either that or jail.
And as terrifying as the bag of lingerie was, an orange jumpsuit was far, far scarier. There were enough courtroom dramas on TV painting law and order as a great equalizer that Charity knew most people must see the justice system as something that protected them.
She never had.
Her father had talked about Robin Hood. Twisting tales where thieves were heroes and anyone in uniform was out to shore up the impossible walls built around the rich and elite. Walls that kept people like them down and out.
Yes. The law was nothing but evil. Jail, the worst fate that could befall someone like them because they could disappear in there. No one on the outside cared about people like them. The ones on the bottom rung of society. They had to take care of themselves, because no one else would.
There was a very large part of her that still clung to those teachings, was still shaped by them.
But she'd talked her way out of worse.
She just had to find her angle.
And once she found it, she would exploit it to the best of her ability. And her abilities on that score were pretty damn good.
Rocco might think he had the upper hand
and she would allow him to continue thinking that.
The dress was so tight that Charity could barely breathe. Sheer layers of black lace that clung to her curves and revealed hints of skin beneath. There had been shoes in the bag which, somehow, fit her, just like the dress. Just like the lingerie. The heels were tall, and given the brief hemline of the garment, lengthened her legs and showed a whole lot more skin than she was comfortable with.
Which was, in many ways, going to work to her advantage. The fact that she was uncomfortable in these clothes would help. She could use it, and use them.
Charity took a deep breath and walked through the black entryway doors of The Mark, her impractical heels clicking loudly on the black-and-white-striped tile. She walked through the lobby area into the entrance of the restaurant, feeling her face heat when the hostess appraised her.
The woman's expression remained neutral, and yet, somehow, Charity sensed a hint of disdain beneath it.
She could well imagine that women in tight, tiny dresses only served one purpose in an establishment like this. If Rocco had intended to humiliate her, he was doing a very fine job.
Yet again, not necessarily a bad thing. Because she could embrace that. Go ahead and welcome the heat she could feel spreading in her face, the slight trembling in her legs. All the better to play the part of shivering ingénue.
All the better to appeal to his humanity.
"I'm here to see
Rocco Amari," she said, placing a slight hesitation before his name. Getting into character already.
This earned her a slight smile. "Of course, miss. Mr. Amari keeps his own private table in the back of the dining room. He has not arrived yet, but I'm happy to show you to your seat."
The hostess turned and began to walk into the dining room, and Charity followed. Her high heels sank into the plush carpet, her ankle rolling slightly with each step. She put all of her focus on walking in a straight line and not breaking a bone.
She hadn't worn shoes like this in a while. The mangled sidewalks that ran through the ancient New York neighborhood she lived in certainly weren't practical for this kind of footwear. And in her line of work, she rarely wore anything fancier than black slacks and a black polo shirt. Along with some very sensible sneakers that allowed her to stand on her feet all day.
Her waitressing job, at a restaurant that was much less posh than this one, was the first real job she'd ever had. After her dad had left last year she'd wanted to get out of their "family business." She was old enough now to understand that running cons wasn't just a job, and that, no matter how rich or terrible the people you conned were, it wasn't any way to live your life in the long term.
But then he'd come back, all beguiling smiles and laughter, the kind she'd missed since he'd been gone, and he'd asked her to help him again.
Just one more time.
She could stab her own arm with the salad fork. She was such an idiot. She was a con who'd been conned by a con. And now she was in too deep.
"Can I get you anything to drink?" the hostess asked.
Charity weighed her options. On the one hand, sobriety would definitely be an asset when dealing with a man like Rocco. On the other hand, she needed something to help her get a handle on her nerves. Sometimes wine made conversation flow a little more smoothly.
"White wine," she said. She didn't have to drink it after all. But it would be there if she needed it.
"Of course, miss." The hostess disappeared, leaving Charity sitting alone.
Charity glanced at the menu, not really bothering to read the descriptions of the food. Everything would be good at a place like this, but she was feeling a little nervous. Her stomach always got funny when she was lying. Which was inconvenient when you had to lie a lot.
While she was skimming the menu a hush fell over the restaurant. Or, perhaps the restaurant had already been hushed and something else in the atmosphere changed. Grew thicker, tighter.
Whatever it was, there was a change.
She looked up, just in time to see a man walk in. He was arresting, and she wasn't the only one who found him so. It seemed that almost every eye in the restaurantmale and femalewas on him. He was tall, sleek like a panther. His black hair slicked back off his forehead, trim physique encased in a black suit that was tailored perfectly to the stark, lean lines of his body. But it wasn't his clothing, or the handmade Italian shoes on his feet, nor the impossibly expensive gold watch on his wrist and the no doubt overpriced sunglasses he pulled from over his eyes as he walked deeper into the restaurant, that held everyone's attention.
It was something deeper. Something more. A magnetism that could not be denied.
Everything about him was designed to capture and hold the attention of an audience.
And as he drew closer she could see that he was extraordinarily handsome. Olive skin, high cheekbones, a strong, straight nose. And his lips
She couldn't remember ever noticing a man's lips before, but she certainly noticed his.
Rocco Amari was even more beautiful in person than he was in the glossy pages of a magazine. So annoying. Why couldn't he be a sad disappointment?
"Ms. Wyatt," he said, that voice as affecting now as it had been over the phone. "I am pleased to see you made it. And that you found the dress to your liking."
That comment made her wish her wine was already here, so she could throw it in his face. He had given her no choice, and he knew it.
Don't let him get to you. You have to get to him.
"It is a very good fit," she said. "As we have never met before, I was a little bit surprised by that."
"Oh, I had you investigated. Very thoroughly." He took a seat in the chair opposite her, undoing the button on his jacket as he did, and suddenly several members of staff seemed to materialize out of nowhere. "We will have what the chef recommends," he said.
The staff melted into obscurity after that and Rocco turned his full attention to her, his dark eyes blazing with a kind of sharpness that seemed to cut through her. It was disconcerting to say the least.