Copyright © 2012 Tamara Morgan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The stiletto heel pressed against his jugular had yet to break the skin.
It was a small comfort—Asprey’s only one at the moment. Gravel dotted painfully into his cheek and temple, and his arm hung limp at his side. Only a few cords of fiery, razor-edged nerves seemed to connect the bones of his shoulder to the rest of him, and every movement was a clear reminder that he lay completely at the woman’s mercy.
That was, if she had any.
“I think maybe we should give the lady her necklace back,” Asprey offered, his words a little raspy since several handfuls of the grit from the road had made their way into his mouth. “I’ve never been partial to pearls anyway.”
Asprey couldn’t see much other than the tires of his Ducati and the sprawl of the ground before him, but he could hear Graff’s muttered curse. It was a short trip from there to imagine what his brother looked like at that moment, his nostrils all flaring and irate as he held a shotgun to the woman’s date.
“Don’t listen to him,” Graff said. “All you have to do is let my incompetent accomplice go and we’ll be on our way. It’s that easy.”
A sharp pain as the stiletto dug deeper indicated retreat wasn’t going to be as easy as Asprey had hoped.
“How about I call the police and let them decide who’s going where?” the woman asked.
That, at least, didn’t strike fear into Asprey’s heart. Cell phone reception was impossible up here—it was why they’d picked the location. Just a few hundred yards up from the highway by virtue of a dirt path that few people knew about and even fewer tried to navigate, they were hidden away in the perfect place for a quick robbery. That was the plan, anyway.
Force the car up the path. Point a shotgun. Demand the jewels.
It was hard to tell exactly where things had gone wrong. If Asprey had to guess, it was when they’d assumed their target’s girlfriend, a platinum blonde in a tight black dress, would react like every other woman in the world with a gun placed squarely in her face. A few tears, a little hysteria. Possibly a can of mace hidden in her purse.
Not so with this one. When Graff had ordered her to hand over her necklace, a string of pearls set with diamonds and boasting an estimated twenty-thousand-dollar value, she’d launched some sort of ninja attack. That was the only way to explain it. One minute, Asprey was reaching out a gloved hand to take the necklace. The next, he was about to be impaled on the end of a high heel.
Hence the stalemate. And the pain.
“How about I blow your boyfriend’s head off instead?” Graff countered.
Even though Asprey knew his brother would do no such thing—there weren’t even any bullets in the gun—the words sent a shiver down his spine. On a good night, Graff was an asshole. On a night like this, in the middle of being bested by a hundred and twenty pounds of finely crafted femininity, he was right up there with political dictators and the people at animal shelters who put kittens to sleep.
“How about someone lets me stand so we can work this out like calm, rational adults?” Asprey interrupted, keeping his tone light and pleasant. He’d always been that way—the more intense a situation got, the less concerned he appeared on the surface. It drove Graff crazy. “If it helps, I’m pretty sure you’ve dislocated my arm. I don’t pose much of a threat.”
“Maybe you should just let them have the necklace,” a third voice added. “It’s not worth anyone’s life.” The voice belonged to Todd Kennick, their target for the night. He was currently pressed up against the side of his dark blue Mercedes, Graff’s gun between his shoulder blades.
“That’s some pretty sound advice.” Asprey tried swallowing, but the lump throbbed painfully as it moved past the shoe’s point. “We wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt. Would we…Natalie?”
At the sound of her name, the woman started, and Asprey couldn’t help a feeling of triumph from swelling inside him. Okay, so he wasn’t much of a hand at robbery, as the current state of affairs indicated, but the legwork ahead of time—predicting patterns—was kind of his thing. He knew where his victims would be and when they would be there. He knew where they lived, what they read in the bathroom, how they took their coffee.
He also knew when they gave ridiculously overpriced pieces of jewelry to gorgeous women who dressed like they were one step away from the pole. Todd Kennick, forty-eight-year-old finance executive, was that man. And Natalie Hall was that woman.
“How do you know my name?” Natalie’s voice was cold, but the stabby heel loosened a little, putting Asprey even more at ease. He was even able to turn his head enough to look up the expanse of her calf, all sleek muscle and smooth skin. Ninja legs.
“Who are you?” she added.
“Some call us highwaymen. Some call us gentleman thieves,” Asprey said. He turned even more and managed to smile up at her, just inches away from a glimpse at the goods. “But if you move your leg a little bit to the right, you can call me anything you want.”
“Oh, gross,” she muttered, shifting her body just enough to close off his view. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I never joke about women’s underwear.” Wait. That didn’t come out right.
From across the gravel lot, he heard Graff’s exaggerated sigh and the cock of the shotgun—equal signs that his brother was losing patience.
“Natalie, please,” Todd cried, obviously feeling the pain of a cold ring of metal against his spine. “He’s going to kill me. Give them what they want. The necklace. The car. Anything.”
Asprey didn’t like to judge a man based solely on how he reacted in situations like this. He’d seen far too many guys lose their shit on the wrong side of a gun to believe anyone appeared in their best light when confronted with their own mortality. The big ones always cried; the rich ones offered to buy their way to salvation.
This Todd character, though—he had to be the worst. For all the man knew, Asprey planned on kidnapping his ninja girlfriend and selling her on the black market. Yet all his heroics were directed at saving his own ass, at getting the gun pointed anywhere but toward himself.
This Natalie woman could surely do better. They were practically doing her a favor here.
“I’m begging you.” Todd’s voice rose.
“But my necklace,” Natalie protested, frowning down at Asprey. “I…I love it.”
“For Christ’s sake,” Todd cried. “I’ll buy you another one. I’ll buy you three more. I don’t understand why you’re acting like this.”
Natalie must have decided three necklaces were worth it, because her heel finally pulled away. Asprey scrambled to his feet before she could re-invoke the Force or launch another stealth attack. His arm hung useless and throbbing at his side, but he was at least able to back away a few steps, angling himself behind his motorcycle. No way was he getting anywhere near that woman again—not while he couldn’t fight back.
“So, I’m supposed to hand it off, just like that?” Natalie asked, looking back and forth between Asprey and the necklace. It was clear which one she liked better. “To robbers?”
“Crazed robbers,” Asprey added helpfully.