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Authors: Violet Blaze

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BOOK: Stepbrother Thief
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“I take it you're not interested in going for a walk with me?”

“In these flip-flops?” I ask, reaching down into Aveline's pile of fast food wrappers for a stack of unused napkins. I dry my hand off as best I can and pass the rest over to Gill. “And you're wondering why I freaked out?” I try to make a joke of it, keep the situation as light as I can. When I got into this, my assumption was that I'd be spending little to no time with my stepbrother. Why he keeps pushing for an audience is beyond me.

“I'm glad you're still you,” he says, handing back my coffee. Try as I might to keep our fingers from brushing, the inevitable happens and my fingertips graze his calloused palm. I watch as his entire body goes rock solid, the muscles in his arms standing out against the black and gray wash of his tattoos.

“And that means what?” I ask, pretending I don't notice Gill's reaction to me. What am I supposed to do with it anyway? Knowing he still … feels something for me—whether it's just lust or nostalgia I'm not sure—won't do me any good, won't do either of us any good.

“I mean,” Gill starts and then takes a step back, letting me climb out of the truck in my bare feet, flip-flops clutched in one hand and coffee in the other. He closes the passenger side door behind me. When I look around for Aveline, she's nowhere to be seen. “You're so …” Gill's mouth twitches. “Grown-up. Sophisticated.” He gestures at me, his blue eyes searching my face. “Fashionable.” I raise a brow and glance down at my wrinkled blouse. “It's nice to know there's still some Regi there in all that Regina.”

“Hah,” I say, moving over to a strip of green that lines the parking lot. My toes sink into the moist grass and suddenly, I feel a whole hell of a lot better about everything. “You're saying it's nice to know I'm still the clumsy young adult you left behind?” The words are supposed to be a joke, but as soon as they slip into the air, I can feel a change happen between us. Gill turns away, his dark hair fingered by the electric breeze in the air; another storm is coming.

“Regina,” he says, but I can't take the tone in his voice. I don't want an explanation. I don't want it because it doesn't matter, because it'll never change the raw truth of the situation: Gill left me. He abandoned me. He took my heart and ripped it in two. Truthfully, I don't
care
why he left. No reason is good enough, none.

“I'll walk barefoot. Tell me the plan,” I say, hoping to hell that's why he asked me to walk with him in the first place.
I'm a tree with roots that stretch deep; no wind can topple me.
I'm going to need loads and loads of positive self-talk to get through the rest of this unscathed.

Gill closes his eyes for a moment and I turn away, giving him time to get his emotions in check. Luckily, he's a master at it, and it only takes a second.

“I wanted to talk to you about the short-term.”

“Short-term?” I ask, looking up at the hotel. It's a local place this time, somewhere I've never heard of, but it looks nice. “You mean here?”

Gill takes a deep breath and walks along beside me, his boots squishing into the earth, leaving marks that my bare feet don't. He keeps his gaze straight ahead, but the muscles in his neck are tight, like it's an effort not to look over at me.

“I mean a safe house, some place you and Dad and Solène can stay while we wait for things to settle down. We talked about this before, remember?” I search my mind, but I come up with a dozen plus conversations about this and that and the other thing. Honestly, when Gilleon first showed back up, I was so stunned that I didn't know what to do. Our initial conversations are all blurred generalizations in my brain at this point.

“Uh, I guess?” I brush some hair back from my face, but the wind grabs it again and twists it into a mess of honey blonde strands. “Why can't we just stay at the hotel?”

“Because there are credit cards involved and no matter how good Aveline is at what she does, at some point, someone could find you here. I won't risk that.” He snarls that last bit out, passion lacing his words and drawing goose bumps up on my arms. Interesting. I raise my face to the sky, to the gray clouds and the small shafts of sunshine that manage to sneak past them.

“Okay, so can I go out and buy a place or something?” I look over at Gill and try to smile. “You promised me big money, brother.” His lips twitch, but he doesn't let the expression take over his mouth.

“I did, yes, but a house purchase is big, traceable,
especially
one that happens in cash.” Gill runs his tongue across his lower lip. Uh oh. I'm not going to like what he's going to say. Great. “For a few weeks, maybe a few months, I need you to stay in a safe house.”

“Gill,” I start, trying to keep my calm, trying not to let the freak-out that I can feel looming beneath my skin come loose. “I left my apartment in Paris. I left my job. I left my boyfriend.”
Breathe, Regi, breathe.
“Please tell me I'm not going to regret all of that.”
I did it for you.
I don't want to think like that, can't think like that. I won't hold Gill responsible for my decisions, not even if he had an influence on them. And I won't start pitying myself either. I can, however, let myself get pissed at deviations in the plan. “I thought this was all set in stone, Gilleon.”

“It was,” he says, his voice low and dark. I have a feeling most people would shit a brick at the sound of it. But even if he's a stranger, I know him well enough to know that this is Gilleon going into defensive mode. “But some things have come up that I'd hoped wouldn't happen. It doesn't mean the plan isn't going as it should, only that we're on a slightly curvier path than before. The safe house I'd planned for you isn't good enough. I need you closer to me.”

The fine hairs on my neck stand up straight and I suck in an involuntary breath.

“All of you—Dad, Solène.” Gill stops and turns to me, his eyes so intense that I have to look away. Ouch. All of that ice in there, that pain, when does it stop? Why does he have to keep directing it at me? “You'll stay at my place until things blow over.”

My heart stops.

“Your place?” I ask, imagining some small, featureless apartment that Gill probably uses once a year or less. He travels all over the world, that much at least I do know. When I'm having a good day and Cliff doesn't think it'll upset me, he'll toss a tidbit or two about Gill out there, just some general
he's in Germany right now, Bavaria actually
or something like that. I didn't even know that he had a place in Seattle.

“I know what you're thinking,” he tells me, but I don't really think that he does. “But it won't be like that. You'll have your own room, bathroom, and it'll be nowhere near mine.”

“And now why do you think that'd be a concern of mine?” I ask, even though I feel suddenly light on my feet, like the wind could blow me away at any moment.
Live
with Gill? I can barely stand to be in the same room as him. Tack onto that Cliff and Solène …
What the hell have I gotten myself into?

“Regina,” Gill begins, reaching out a hand, sliding his fingers down the silk arm of my blouse. He's looking right at me, something hovering beneath the surface that he wants to say.

“I guess you won't be around much anyway?” I ask, stepping back, lifting my coffee to my lips just so that my hands have something to do besides shake. I thought watching him ignore me was hard; this is worse.

Overhead, the sky breaks and tiny droplets of rain begin to fall.

“I should get you back inside,” Gill says, turning away towards the parking lot. Whatever thought was drifting behind his eyes, I hope it's gone now—and I really hope it doesn't come back.

Cliff reaches across the table in the restaurant—some trendy little bistro that sits adjacent to the lobby of the hotel—and squeezes my hand. From the corner of my eye, I can see Aveline watching us from her bar stool, an astute and patient bodyguard. I invited her to sit with us, but she said
no go, girl
and retreated into the background with nothing but a basket of fries and a soda. I guess alcohol's off the menu when you're on duty with Gill.

“How are you holding up?” Cliff asks as Solène peruses the menu with a deep set frown and several well-placed sighs.

“I'm fine,” I say, waving my free hand dismissively. Cliff is like his son; he's way too perceptive for his own good.

“All of this nonsense about staying with Gill and you don't have a single thing to say about it?”

I purse my lips and stare Cliff down, right into those blue eyes of his. They're lighter than Gill's, less saturated, but I can see why my mom found him so handsome back in the day.

“It's been ten years, Cliff,” I grind out, hating that he knows me so well—loving it, too. There's nobody in the world that understands me as well as my stepfather; he's the only person that's privy to all my secrets, to all the pain I felt when Gill left me with an engagement ring on my finger and … so much hurt inside my heart. “After a decade, it doesn't seem to matter so much anymore, does it?”

“Bullshit,” Cliff says, giving my hand one last squeeze and then letting go. Behind her menu, Solène snickers. “I'll be the first to admit, my son is an asshole. For all his skill in navigating the world, he still has a bit of trouble understanding the true human experience.”

I roll my eyes.

“Thanks, Papa. I appreciate the concern, but I'm fine. I figured there'd be some snags in the plan.” I sigh and flip open my own menu. “I might've expected issues of a different variety though,” I mumble, my fingers tightening on the plastic.
And I might actually have preferred the feds or the CIA or whoever the hell takes on international jewelry thieves. Prison … or living with Gill. I'm not sure which is worse.

“Don't be silly,” Solène says, tossing a big grin across the table at me. Her dark hair is straight, not curled like usual, and she's wearing the same outfit as yesterday. For a moment I just sit there and stare at her, letting the full force of my decisions wash over me. I can't very well complain about any of this when I've dragged her into it. Solène didn't have any choice in the matter; I did. “I know Gill
looks
kind of scary, but he's nice. And strong. I feel safe when he's around, don't you?”

“Sure do,
mon petit chou,
” Cliff says with a warm chuckle. I smile, but it doesn't quite reach my eyes. Solène doesn't know about my past with Gill—our romantic past that is. As far as she's concerned, Gill's our distant 'brother' and that's that. At least he remembers to send Solène presents on her … birthday.

“So whatever he did to you, you'll just have to forgive and forget,” she tells me with the confidence of a nine year old and the wisdom of someone much, much older.
If only things were that simple …
“Anyway, holding grudges is bad for the skin.” Solène pats her pale, pink cheeks and gives me such a serious look that I can't help but laugh.

“I don't think I've ever heard that one before. Where'd you learn that?”


Vogue Paris,
” she states with a flourish of her hand. Nine years old and she's already into fashion magazines. I think Cliff and I might be in trouble.

“And who said you could read that?” my stepfather asks, giving Solène a look of mock seriousness. I feel my lips curling into a smile. Life might be uncertain right now, and Gill might be an asshole, but it's not all bad. Even in darkness, there is light.
I am a happy person and I deserve that happiness.

“Let's just say,” Solène says, giving me a theatrical wink. “That somebody slipped it in under my bedroom door.” I wink back at her and we both end up laughing. “Now, I'd dare say, all you need is a new pair of shoes and we can be on our way. Those flip-flops are absolutely not
en vogue.

“Thanks for taking me out,” I tell Aveline as she opens the door to a shop in Belltown, Seattle's most densely populated neighborhood and home to some seriously chic shopping. It's no Paris, but then again, I just left the fashion capital of the world for … rain, coffee, and hipsters. I smile anyway because hey, I happen to like rain, coffee, and hipsters. Well, okay, I happen to like rain and coffee at least. “I know it doesn't seem like much, but having something else to wear besides this,” I gesture at myself, at my plastic flip-flops and the blister between my toes where the strap won't seem to stop rubbing, “will make me feel more like a person again.”

BOOK: Stepbrother Thief
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