Cheryl Benson loved drunks. They made her job so easy. Approach the target, capture their attention, and make the grab. But grab was such a harsh word. To her, it came second nature, like brushing her teeth or combing her hair. A choreographed routine she performed nightly at the Oasis, a dive bar wedged between decaying, abandoned warehouses and tumbledown tenements at the end of a Brooklyn pier.
At twenty-three, her level of expertise assured the mark never realized their valuables were missing. The thrill of the theft was her addiction, but lately, she’d been restless. The conscience she thought deserted her returned at the most unexpected times.
She wound her way through the maze of tables that choked the smoke-filled room. Even the state of New York didn’t care if these people puffed their brains out.
“Here you go, gentlemen.” Cheryl laid their change down and leaned in to make sure her blond hair teased her best assets straining against her flimsy tank top.
Her gaze lingered on each of the three eager faces, but she’d already selected her target.
“Hey, she called us gentlemen,” the guy with the biggest beer gut hollered over the din of rowdy customers and hard rock music. “She sure don’t know us very good.” That made them all guffaw and slap each other on the back.
“It was my pleasure to serve you tonight.” She lingered at the side of the quietest one of the group.
“I’ll give you something to service.” Big Mouth leered, making a repulsive hand gesture.
She bent just enough to make the strip of material she called a skirt rise to an almost indecent height. “Maybe next time, handsome.”
Be attentive to the loudest one in the group while fleecing the other two. Guys like them were easy, although the usual adrenaline rush left her nauseous. She walked toward Nicky, slumped at his usual perch at the far end of the bar. His only concern was whether or not the results would pay off the long list of bookies he held at bay, but he wasn’t to blame. Her life of crime began way before Nicky.
“How’d we do?” Nicky asked.
He used the word we without hesitation, yet she assumed all the risks. Such a shame, because Nicky had been fast, sharp and quite charismatic when he’d swept her off the streets four years ago.
She forfeited that for a warm room, regular meals, and the option to keep her clothes on. She’d readily given up stripping in some of Brooklyn’s seediest clubs to run cons with him, but what started off as a way to survive morphed into a bad habit she desperately wanted to break.
She unzipped the secret pocket at the waist of her pleather skirt and handed the money over to him, then tugged on her micro mini.
“We did good.” She shifted to relieve the pressure of the five-inch stilettos holding her feet prisoner.
“Not as much as usual.” He fanned through the money, then tapped her cheek with the wad of bills. “Especially after Sal gets his cut.”
She always kicked back some for herself first, which she hid in a tampon box under the bathroom sink of their apartment over the bar. Let Nicky worry about Sal, the chain-smoking owner of the Oasis. He sounded three breaths away from having a heart attack anyway.
“Slow night.” She took a half step back so the tension in her body wouldn’t give away the backpack she’d packed earlier and stashed in the rear of their closet. Tonight, she’d make her escape out of the life, and take her brother, Dylan with her. Getting him off the Brooklyn streets became her main focus, because the little boy who once adored her grew and found new heroes on the street who offered swag and power.
“Hey, I know this place is a few steps down from what we’re used to, but I’m working on a big score.” He caged her in as his hand grazed her cheek.
A few steps down? A year ago they’d rented suites in uptown hotels, ordered room service, and lounged at VIP tables in the hottest clubs. But it was more than that. Her heart just wasn’t in it anymore.
“I don’t want much, Nicky.”
“What’s with you?” Nicky leaned in to kiss her, and she pulled away. “Are you still thinking about that guy last night?”
“He had his kids’ pictures in his wallet.” Her stomach clenched with the latest waves of regret. “Maybe he needed the money for them.”
“He would’ve drank it all away.” Nicky shrugged off her concern. “We did him a favor. Instead of stumbling home drunk off his ass, he probably went home early.”
She’d once believed Nicky’s every word. His smoldering good looks, schemes, and promises had captivated her. Made her feel like she mattered. Now, he was just another raggedy-jeaned hood who sniffed and twitched from too much coke.
But tonight, her dream of a life without Nicky could come true. A life where she didn’t go to bed at three in the morning and wake up after noon. A nine-to-five life. A straight life. A life with more daylight.
“Fuck.” Nicky stared over her shoulder.
She followed his gaze to a guy who could’ve rocked a GQ cover. She tried unsuccessfully not to gawk, snared by six-plus feet of yummy male wrapped in a black designer button-down shirt and slacks that could probably pay the rent on her room upstairs. Long, lean muscles rolled with every deliberate step. Dark hair cut to perfection and even darker eyes squinted against the smoke-filled room.
“Hey, Jonny,” Nicky said. “Can I get you a drink?” He snapped his fingers for the bartender, but Jonny remained serious, a grim twist to his lips.
She shivered anticipating the danger that swirled around him. His quick once-over cut through her and her muscles tensed with all kinds of red flags.
“You know why I’m here.” His voice sounded bored, but its rough rumble sent a jolt straight to her toes.
“Doesn’t mean we can’t have a drink first.” Nicky slapped the bar top and shouted for the bartender.
“Maybe you’d rather do this in private.” Jonny’s gaze shifted to her again.
His eyes were black. Deep, haunting, and soulful, lingering just long enough to make her wonder what he was thinking.
“I got no secrets from her,” Nicky said.
“Fine.” Jonny shrugged. “You owe ten grand. I want it. Tonight.”
“Tonight?” Nicky’s leg twitched as he gulped at the cheap whiskey the bartender placed in front of him.
Nicky had gambling debts, but owing a guy who could star in The Godfather, Next Generation? Not smart.
“You have it or not?” Jonny’s eyes narrowed, but his tone remained even. His smooth, low rasp intimidated more than if he’d yelled the question.
“I got five hundred,” Nicky offered.
Jonny pursed his lips. She sensed he didn’t like his job either.
She’d given Nicky way more than five hundred dollars this week. Were the drugs screwing with his brain and telling him he could outsmart this guy?
“This isn’t gonna end well.” Jonny’s cool, calm voice raised the little hairs on the back of her neck, and old loyalties to Nicky nagged at her. True, she wanted to get far away from him and his drama, but she didn’t want him floating face down in the East River.
“He can give you more than that.” Her voice surprised her. Like her thoughts tumbled out of her mouth without her permission.
“Shut the fuck up.” Nicky squeezed her arm, then yanked her to his side.
Jonny stepped into their space and glared at Nicky until he released his grip. Jonny’s commanding presence gave him an air of authority. This wasn’t some tough guy act, this was real, raw and . . . Sexy as hell.
“Seems like she’s got more sense than you.” Jonny jerked his chin in her direction.
“I don’t know about sense.” Nicky switched gears. “But she does have some very interesting talents.” The amount of sleaze in his voice made her regret her moment of sympathy.
She shook her head in disgust. Then Jonny did the same thing.
“The money. Either you have it, or you don’t.”
“All right.” Nicky dug into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. “Here’s three grand.”
Jonny’s gaze skimmed over them. A quick twitch of his lips, like he had some great idea, then he snatched the banded money from Nicky’s hand and waved it in front of his face. “Your girlfriend bought you another week.” He pocketed the money.
Nicky huffed out a long-held breath. “Now we should have that drink of the good stuff.”
When Nicky walked around the bar to retrieve a bottle of bourbon, Jonny turned those pitch-black eyes on her. Her pulse pounded under his scrutiny as she tugged at her too-short skirt, then wrapped her arms around her bare midriff.
“I have a feeling your boyfriend isn’t always so nice.” His voice lost its edge and became as smooth as honeyed whiskey.
He leaned in close enough for her to get a whiff of his cologne, an exotic mix that sent a bolt of heat to her spine. She held on to the bar to steady herself. His hard eyes softened, as he scribbled a number on the back of a business card, then handed it to her.
Jonny Vallone, Owner. Paradise Lounge.
“You ever need anything, come see me.” Jonny leaned in and murmured against her ear. “‘Cause you don’t belong here.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but Nicky returned with the bourbon, poured two glasses, and slid one toward Jonny.
Jonny stepped back and pinned Nicky with a stony glare. “Next week, the usual drop-off.” He glanced around the seedy room. “Don’t make me come down to this shithole again.”
When he spun back to her, he winked so quickly she almost missed it. Then without another word, he wove his way through the crowd, and she sighed with a strange sense of loss.
“That fuckin’ guy, coming in here talking to me like that.” Nicky shot one bourbon, then the other. “Who the fuck does he think he is?”
She twirled the card in her fingers. “Apparently, the owner of the Paradise Lounge.”
“He must’ve pissed somebody off if he’s down here making collections.” Nicky grabbed her wrist and ripped the card from her hand. “He gave you this?”
He read it and smirked. “If you plan on doin’ him, make sure he takes it off my tab, ‘cause thanks to you I’m out three grand.”
She snatched back the card and rolled her eyes at Nicky’s crude remark but couldn’t suppress the fantasy as her mind replaced Nicky with Jonny, her knight in black Brioni.
The loud rock music, clinking glasses, and rough laughter would fade away. Jonny would hold her close, not able to wait, both of them breathless. He’d nuzzle her neck, and she’d feel the scratch of his stubbled jaw. Hot, sweet and slow. His hands roaming, then palming her ass and lifting her until she could feel his . . .
“You listening to me?” Nicky shouted.
Her fantasy zapped like a cartoon cloud. What was wrong with her? The last thing she needed was another bad boy in her life.
“Yes.” She switched gears as Nicky jostled her away from the bar and into the back hallway.
“I’m working on a new deal that’s gonna put us over the top.”
At one in the morning with the anticipation of freedom on her mind, having to listen to another one of Nicky’s get-rich-quick plans made her ears bleed.
“This time I got us a sure thing.”
“Really?” Even she heard the sarcastic edge in her voice.
“C’mon baby, don’t be like that.” Nicky slid his hands down her back. “I can still picture you on those expensive European sheets while I fuck . . .”
“It’s Egyptian cotton sheets.”
“European, Egyptian, who the hell cares. The point is, it’s a sure thing.”
Another sure thing? Like his producer friend in L.A. who hustled them to a seedy garage in Burbank for porn flicks. When she refused to join in, Nicky ranted and screamed insults at her for about ten seconds before he slapped her hard enough to leave a welt under her left eye.
She should’ve left him then but going back to her mother and her latest druggie boyfriend wasn’t safe either, and in some crazy way, she feared being alone. When they returned to Brooklyn, Nicky became more erratic. The drugs and the liquor were the symptoms, but failed dreams and lost hope was the disease.
She wasn’t waiting until he lashed out again, and with her take from tonight and the other money she’d socked away, she had enough for two one-way tickets for her and her brother far from New York.
“All right, let’s hear it.” She controlled her breathing and feigned interest in Nicky’s next scheme.
“Hey, Nicky.” One of his thug friends waved him over to the bar.
“Stay here.” He pointed his finger at her face. “I’ll be right back.”
Perfect. Now she could call her brother. She moved further down the hallway where it was quieter.
“Hey,” Dylan answered on the third ring.
“You all set for tonight?”
“Yeah, can’t wait to get out of this shit city,” Dylan shouted over people arguing in the background on his end, and her maternal alarm kicked up. “Why, what’s wrong?”
Not likely where Dylan was concerned. Driving cars that didn’t belong to him, missed meetings with his parole officer, scoring drugs for his stripper girlfriend from whacked-out dealers. The list went on and on, but tonight she didn’t have time to decode his latest drama. Because if everything went as planned, maybe she could save both of them.
She raised her voice to ensure he could hear her. “Just make sure you’re at the corner of 86th and 4th.”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“All right. I’ll see you in an hour. Don’t be late. We have to leave tonight.”
Silence and then the phone disconnected. She prayed that for once Dylan would act responsibly and do as she instructed because there was too much at stake to screw up.
She swiped her phone, sucked in a deep breath, turned and stared into Nicky’s narrowed, accusing eyes.