(A Shilling Agency Novel)
Author: Jen McLaughlin
Length: 250 pages
Rating: 3 Stars
A sexy category romance from Entangled publishing's Brazen imprint…
Shillings Agency employee Jake Forsythe is not happy to discover that the thief who he has to track down is none other than his ex-partner from his past. Now he’s forced to blackmail her into submission…or throw her in jail.
Tara Harris steals from the rich and corrupted, returning objects to their rightful owners one case at a time. When Jake shows up in her life, at first, she’s thrilled. But then when she finds out that she has to help the man she stole from or go to jail…it’s the choice between two evils.
These two can’t deny the burning passion between them, but when push comes to shove, they’ll have to lay their hearts and their lives on the line. -Goodreads
Stealing His Heart
by Diane Alberts
Copyright © 2014 by Diane Alberts. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Tara Harris slipped into the shadows of the trees, her breath coming fast. For a second, she was sure she’d been had. There was a shout, followed by some scuffling from inside the house. She’d been worried the door would open, and she’d be caught in her black jeans and sweatshirt on the jerk’s front porch.
But the door remained closed. All signs of possible discovery from within had silenced. Her careful calculations hadn’t failed her…yet.
She hunkered down behind the overgrown plant, peeking around it cautiously. Right on schedule, the door opened and out came her target. He wore an expensive suit, and had his arms slung over two half-naked women. Mistresses vying for a new provider, more than likely. They must be desperate if they were trying to catch him on their hook. He had a reputation for being more of a dick in bed than he was out of it.
And that was saying a lot.
As the threesome passed, she held completely still, not daring to so much as breathe. This was the crucial moment. It was the small span of time where she could be seen, if she’d been even a centimeter off in her calculations. The chauffeur opened the door for them, and the group slid inside. Within seconds, they were gone. And she was alone.
She took a shaky breath, allowing herself a moment of victory before she moved her focus back to the house. Lurking behind the shrubbery, she made sure no one turned on the lights. One could never be too careful when it came to breaking and entering, after all. A few assignments back, she’d entered a house immediately after her target left and walked in on a celebrity’s husband, naked and handcuffed to the bed.
He’d assumed she was the dominatrix he had ordered, come to bring him pleasure laced with a healthy dose of pain. She’d sent the real dominatrix away. Retrieved the item from his home she’d come to steal back, and left him for his wife to find. The next day, the tabloids reported he was in rehab for “personal issues.”
Seemed silly to go to rehab for enjoying sex, but who was she to talk? She wasn’t exactly an expert in the S&M department. She wasn’t the type to relinquish control to a man, whether it be in the bedroom or out of it, so she might not be the best fit for that lifestyle…no matter how much she liked reading about it in books.
When the interior of the house remained still and dark, she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her head and crept to the door. Since she’d done her homework beforehand—
obviously—she already knew it would take mere seconds to disarm the security system. It was ridiculously easy. Too easy, really. She almost wished the idiot had gone to greater measures to keep a thief like her out. Almost.
But then again, it was rare she encountered a challenge anymore.
Although…she had struggled with a code last week. In fact, it had almost beaten her. But in the end, she’d prevailed. She made it inside that asshole Soltese’s house, and the British earl who had flown all the way to the United States for her help had his heirloom vase back in his country estate where it belonged.
She’d get the same results tonight, too.
Glancing over her shoulder, she wired her phone into the system and waited for the code to pop up. When the six-digit encryption lit her screen, she keyed it in. The green light flashed twice, and she grinned. Easy as taking candy from a baby—not that she did that. She had to draw a line somewhere.
She entered the same digital password into the front- door system. People always thought that it was safer to use these electronic locks. What they didn’t realize was any hacker worth their salt could easily break in. And once they had the code…they could get anything they wanted. And she wanted that painting.
She’d get it, too.
Slowly, she opened the door, wincing when the hinges creaked. After shutting it behind her, she shoved her phone into her pocket and headed left toward the family room. According to her source, that’s where the artwork would be. It was. The expensive piece hung over the fireplace in the
opulent room. The muted hues of the meadow were more striking in their simplicity than she’d ever believed possible. She took a second to admire it. The piece of work had been completed in 1547, and had been in the royal family until the early nineteen hundreds. After that, it had mysteriously been sold to an unknown buyer. After years of obscurity, it had shown up deep inside the Viotollo mob. The head of the crime family had stolen it from a wealthy American CEO when the man refused to sell it to him, and she had every
intention of returning it to him.
She wished she could hang it over her fireplace for a
little while. It would go nicely with her Monet. But this one wasn’t for her. It was for her employer, and she wouldn’t steal from a good person like him. It was against her code.
Even thieves like her had rules.
She took a step toward the framed piece, flexing her gloved fingers. When she was halfway across the room, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. A hushed footstep and a small shift in the air alerted her to the presence of another person.
Someone was watching her.
She tried to spin around as quickly as she could, but she was too late. Within seconds of her sensing another person in the room with her, she was pinned face-first against the wall. The arms that closed around her were strong and solid, yet the man’s grip was gentle.
Something slammed across her mouth, effectively cutting off her cry—and her breath, too. She kicked backward, desperate to strike out at her attacker in any way she could, but she didn’t hit anything. If anything, the arms encircling her squeezed tighter.
Jesus, who was this guy? The freaking Rock?
“Shh.” Her captor pressed his cheek against her temple, his hot breath washing over her ear. For some reason, her body responded to his touch. As if it knew him already. What. The. Hell? “Don’t move. I’m going to uncover your mouth, but if you make a sound, you’re done. Understand?”
Aaaand that explained her body’s reaction.
She knew that voice. She would know it anywhere. Jake Forsythe, the man she’d had a crush on all throughout her teenage years…and then some. What was he doing here? Was he up to his old ways?
Last she’d heard, he was in Iraq fighting the war against terror. Right before he left, they had shared one glorious night together, where they’d been thisclose to sealing the deal, but something held him back. He’d left her naked on her bed, and they hadn’t spoken since.
She didn’t know he’d returned to the country, let alone Maine.
“If I let go, will you stay quiet?” he asked, his voice raspy. “Will you obey me?”
Obey him? That sounded oddly sexy coming from his lips. As if he was demanding she succumb to him in more ways than this. She shivered and nodded obediently, though she wanted to flee now more than ever.
He slowly lowered his hand, but didn’t release her. “Be a good girl…”
Carefully, she kept her head turned away, on the off chance he hadn’t seen her face yet. She licked her parched lips. “I’ll leave, and I won’t come back. I came into your house by accident. My mistake, sir.”
“Nice try, Tara.” He rested his chin on the top of her head. He was pressed so tightly against her that she could feel every inch of his body…even the parts she’d tried so hard to forget about. “I knew who you were before you stepped on that porch.”
She lowered her lids and took a shaky breath. Her traitorous heart sped when his arms flexed around her, and she’d swear he pushed his hips against her even though he hadn’t moved. “Can’t blame a girl for trying, can you? It’s been years since I last saw you.”
She refused to mention what they’d been doing the last time they’d seen each other. It was better left unsaid.
“I suppose it has been, but you’re pretty damn memorable. I mean, you’ve grown up and all…” He lifted his head off of hers, and she could sense him looking down at her. “But you still look the same to me. If I let go, will you behave yourself?”
“Do I ever?” she asked lightly.
“That doesn’t exactly make me want to let go of you,” he said without a trace of amusement in his voice. If anything, he sounded annoyed. “Will you be good, or not? What’s it gonna be?”
She didn’t move. “It’s been a while since I had a man pressing me up against a wall. I’m cool like this if you are. Feel free to move around a bit, too, if you’d like. Could be fun—for old times’ sake.”
Instead of the laugh she expected out of him, he sighed. Man, the Marines had stolen his sense of humor. A couple of tours probably did that to a guy. “I’m serious. Will you remain where you are?”
“Fine. I’ll be good,” she promised.
“All right.” He let go of her instantly, stepping back enough to allow her breathing room. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah.” She closed her eyes for a second, steeling herself for the way she’d feel when they locked eyes once more. All grown up and ready to take on the world. “Too long. You should’ve called.”
Her whole body throbbed with excitement and desire now that he was back here with her—which wasn’t fair. Last time she’d seen him, before he’d made her come and run off before she’d been able to return the favor, he’d promised to write to her. She’d promised to behave. Turned out they sucked at keeping promises.
“I know.” He cleared his throat. “Life’s been busy.”
She turned around to face him, but splayed her hands
against the wall on either side of her hips as she did a quick once-over of the man she’d once been crazy about.
Holy. Crap. He was hotter than she’d dreamed.
Like, much hotter than he’d been back when he was a scrawny eighteen-year-old leaving for war. Back when they shared their almost-night together. He’d just been starting to become the man he was today. And that man? He oozed confidence and raw, dirty sex.
Really, really dirty sexy.
She swallowed hard, her heart quickening. He had a few lines around his brows and mouth, probably from squinting in the desert sun, but his moss-green eyes spoke of things he’d seen that she would never begin to understand. Without a doubt, he’d gotten hotter.
She ran her gaze down his body, taking all of him in. His
biceps were huge and rock-hard, and she’d bet he sported a six-pack under that shirt of his, too. “You were busy for eight years?”
He lifted a shoulder. “It happens. But you were a hell of a lot easier to lure than I thought you’d be, all things considered.”
“You didn’t lure me here. I’m on a case for—”
“Mr. Washington.” He bowed. “Nice to meet you officially, Ms. Harris.”
“No. You didn’t.”
He laughed, the sound both annoyingly cocky and intensely attractive all at once. “Oh, I did. How’s it feel to be duped by an old friend?”
She forced her attention back to his face—and the conversation. When she locked gazes with him, she drew in a deep breath. While she’d been watching him, he’d been watching her. And now his eyes held a new darkness in them. Her insides quivered in response.
Shaking the unwelcome feelings off, she asked, “Wait. Are you saying you tricked me into coming here tonight?”
“Are you feeling okay? You’re really slow tonight.” He cocked a brown brow. “Are you really that surprised I could outthink you? I’ve done it before.”
She crossed her arms. “That’s up for debate.”
“Which part? The part about you being slow tonight, or the whole me-tricking-you-before thing?”
“The latter.” She stared him down, trying to regain her equilibrium in the face of the landslide that was Jake. “I’m never slow, and you know it.”
“Let me count the ways I’ve tricked you.” He held out his hand and counted off as he said, “The high school dance.
Graduation. The night I tied you to a tree and made you—” “Okay, okay. I get the point,” she cut in impatiently, her cheeks going hot. “That’s not what I meant, though. I meant
why would you want to lure me in?” “Why not?”
She canted her head. “You haven’t exactly been trying to get a hold of me since you went off to fight for freedom and country. You left your past in the past, though you swore you’d write to me once you got there. Obviously, I was part of that past you wanted to forget.”
It had been as if he was afraid if he ever contacted her again, he’d have to finish or something. Instead of risking it…he’d easily cut her out of his life.
It had hurt.
He glanced away and shifted his weight on his feet. “I didn’t want to forget you, Tara. I just …” He broke off, rubbing his jaw. “I was a kid. So were you.”
“I know.” She stared him down. “But you could have written. You broke your promise to me.”
Something flashed through his expression, but it left quickly. “You broke your promise to me, too. You’re still a thief.”
Not really. She wasn’t one of the bad guys anymore. “I don’t steal anymore, not like I used to. Now, I—”
“I know what you do,” he pointed out. “I hired you, remember? But stealing is stealing…and that’s what you’re doing.”
She clamped her mouth shut, stealing another glance at him. His brown hair was disheveled, his eyes were icy, and the hard line of his mouth told her more than words ever could how he felt about that. He was hot when he was angry.
“Are we really going to play catch-up in a house we’ve both broken into?”
He crossed his arms. His light green gaze slid down her body, and back up, sending shivers through her body. Freaking. Shivers. Over the years, he’d apparently developed a way of looking at her that fooled her mind into thinking he’d done more than simply look. “I didn’t break in. You did.”
“What? Wait a second. Are you a…?” She did another quick glance down his body, not letting herself get distracted this time. He wore a gun on his hip, and since he’d always liked to prepare for all eventualities, he more than likely had another strapped to his ankle. He also had something in his pocket.
A badge, maybe?
He rocked back on his heels. “Am I a what? I’m dying of anticipation.”
Ignoring him, she continued on her thought process. She didn’t think he’d become a cop. Even he couldn’t have gone that clean. Which left… “Let me guess. Private security?”
He laughed. “Your creepy Sherlock-ian powers of observation are still as strong as ever, I see.”
“Did you expect any different?”
He sighed. “No. It’s actually why I wanted to see you.” She had the insane urge to run her thumb over his chin
dimple, like she used to ache to do. She’d been too scared to make a move back then. Even on that night. Too much of a girl and not enough of a woman. But she wasn’t that little girl anymore.
Maybe he was counting on her still being that little girl, and he was hoping to take advantage of her childhood crush
to lure her into some scheme of his. She shook her head slightly and took a sideways step toward the entry. Time to walk away from him and all the troubles he’d brought to her door.
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”
“Wait.” With one diagonal step, he blocked her escape with his hard, lean body. God, when had he gotten so freaking big? “We need to talk, Tara.”
She frowned at him, irritated at his insistence despite the way her pulse leaped at his proximity. “Not in here. You want to talk? Come with me. You’ll have my undivided attention outside of this house.”
“We’ll be fine here. The owner won’t be back until tomorrow morning.” He dragged his fingers through his brown hair, making it stand on end. “We’re quite alone, and you’re not going anywhere without hearing me out first.”
“Fine.” Her temper rose, but she forced herself to remain calm. Outwardly, at least. “What do you want?”
He curled his hands into fists. “I need your help with a project.”
She laughed. Did he really think she would pick up where they left off? Happily go on another mission with him, acting as his sidekick? Hell no. She wasn’t anyone’s helper anymore. She worked alone. “I’m not interested. We’re not even friends anymore, let alone thieving buddies. And I don’t work with men I don’t trust. Remember?”
His jaw tightened. He was so uptight and wound up. When had he become so serious? “Yeah, but you have to help me anyway. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you.”
No one told her what to do anymore, but she’d play along to get more information out of him. She fought back the
snappy remark that flew to her tongue at his condescending attitude, trying to act as if she weren’t alarmed in the slightest by his reappearance in her life. “I can’t think of a possible reason why I would want to help you.”
He stared her down with a hard, stony glint in his stare. “Because you don’t have a choice.”
“I always have a choice.” She took a step to the left, focusing on the door. Her heart beat a rapid staccato. “And I choose to walk away from you right now.”
He stepped in her way. Again. “Okay, you’re right. You do have a choice.”
“I know I do. Now if you’ll excuse me…” She scooted to his left, but he blocked her for the millionth time. Anger surged in her veins, finally killing off any lingering lust she’d been feeling earlier. She fought the urge to throat-punch him. Barely. “I’m not afraid to kick you in the nuts. Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”
He pulled out an iPhone, not even slightly concerned about the safety of his nuts, and started punching in his pass code. “Sorry. No can do. Now…about those choices. Here are yours. While you were busy watching the people leaving the house, I was busy watching you.” He stopped with his fingers hovering over the screen and his gaze locked on her. “And you can bet your ass that I have a video feed of you breaking and entering this house. Trust me. I got a clear shot of your face.”
This couldn’t be happening.
“Show me the proof,” she snapped, her stomach roiling.
If he’d caught her…she was screwed. “Where’s the footage?” He turned the phone her way, the video of her breaking
in already playing on the screen. When she looked directly at the hidden camera, giving him the perfect view of her face, her heart quickened so fast it hurt. “Seriously? You’re going to narc on me?”
“Yes. I am. Unless…” He returned her stare, and the heat of his stare scorched into her. But on top of that, she could read a hesitance in his gaze. Maybe even a little bit of shame, too. “…you help me.”
She pressed her lips together. “Screw you. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
“I don’t have a choice, unlike you. You will do exactly what I tell you to do, or go to jail for your crimes. Your choice.”
Son of a bitch.
Tara Harris is a very spirited and principled character who is the making of this emotionally charged tale. It is her part in the story, that makes the most sense plot-wise. Though Jake makes a very hunky emotional touchstone with his story of lost love and being wounded. His gruff and closed manner and dominant attitude in bed seems a little overdone, and clashes wildly with the "take no prisoners" style of his lady love.
There also seems to be a rather pronounced disconnect between the urgency of Tara finding the information that will save her, and she and Jake spending most of their time together in sexier ways.
As things between the pair heat up, the initial reason for them being together seems to almost become an after thought.
All in all this is a sweet, quick, read. The plot could use a good tweaking, but the chemistry between Tara and Jake is great.