STARR AMBROSE

thievescoverChapter 1

Dumping the world’s worst husband called for more than a celebration.  It required a symbolic act.  Like hocking her engagement ring. 

“You know what this is?  It’s poetic justice.”  Janet Aims admired the tasteful display of diamonds twinkling in Portman Jeweler’s storefront window as if she were buying, not selling.  “This is where Banner bought the stupid ring in the first place.  I found the receipt.”

“That doesn’t mean they’ll buy it back,” Ellie pointed out.  “I don’t think jewelry stores do that, Jan, especially high class places like Portman’s.”

“They buy estate jewelry.  This ring is now part of the Westfield estate, which ought to be enough to impress anyone in this town.  I just have to suck it up and be a Westfield one last time.”

She shifted to get a better view of her reflection and finger-combed the hairs that barely covered her ears.  She wasn’t used to the short haircut yet, but she liked it.  It was all part of the new Janet—new haircut, new condo, and new marital status: single, with no dazzling diamond ring to remind her of the biggest mistake of her life. 

“Do I look rich and influential enough to impress them?”

Her friend laughed.  “You were born rich and influential.  You can do rich and influential in jammies and bunny slippers.”

“Not Westfield rich, that’s a whole different class of wealth.”  She gave Ellie a significant eyebrow wiggle.  “One you’d better get used to.”

“Jack’s a Payton, not a Westfield.”

“Payton, Westfield, what’s the difference?  They all connect to Elizabeth Payton Westfield, and it doesn’t get any richer than that, at least not in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.”  She pulled a white ring box out of her purse.  “Come on, I’ll take advantage of my status one last time and show you how the rich folk throw their weight around.  I can’t wait to get rid of this thing.”

Ellie snickered.  “You demonstrate.  I’ll take notes.  You know, it would almost be worth telling Banner what you did with his big, expensive ring, just to ruin his day.”

“Since that would require speaking to him, it’s out of the question.  But I like the sentiment.”  She paused to give her friend a quick hug.  “This whole thing has been easier, having your support.  You’re the best.”  Taking her hand, she pulled her inside the store.  “Come on, let’s do this.”

Ellie walked fast to keep up.  “I’m glad you’re so agreeable, since I have to ask you for a favor.”

“Anything.”

“It involves Rocky.”

Damn!  That was not what Janet wanted to hear.  She turned, ready to accuse Ellie of taking advantage of her good mood, when a voice behind her said, “Mrs. Westfield!  Welcome to Portman’s.  How may I help you?”
Janet hissed, “We’ll discuss this later,” then replaced her glare with a smile as she turned toward the man behind the counter.  She didn’t know him, so he must have recognized her from newspaper photos.  The wife of the accused.  One more reason to hate Banner.

“Hello, Mr….”

“Portman.  William Portman.”

“Mr. Portman.  I’m Miss Aims now.”

He flushed.  “Of course, I’m sorry.”

Letting him feel a little embarrassed might work to her advantage.  She reached into her purse and pulled out a small box.  Opening the white silk lid, she set it on the glass counter top.   “Do you remember this ring, Mr. Portman?”

He smiled as soon as he saw the large diamond flanked by two smaller stones.  “Oh, my, yes.  A beautiful piece, we designed the setting exclusively for…”  His smile slipped and he cleared his throat.  “For Mr. Westfield.”

“Yes, you did.  So you can understand why, as beautiful as it is, I don’t want it anymore.”

“Uh, hmm, yes.”  He pursed his lips and frowned, apparently unsure of the protocol when acknowledging one’s association with a notorious criminal.

“How much can you give me for it?”

Portman looked even more uncomfortable.  “Miss Aims, Portman’s doesn’t accept returns on used jewelry.”

“Used?”  She arched an eyebrow.  “Mr. Portman, this jewelry belongs to the Westfield estate.  Do you, or do you not, deal in estate jewelry?”

Janet saw his gaze dart across the room to a tall display case labeled, “Estate Jewelry,” then look quickly away.  “Yes, but those are heirloom pieces, crafted by well-known artists.  They have historic value in addition to their intrinsic worth.”

“I see.”  She smiled sweetly.  “And my ring was crafted by – who did you say?”

“By, um, us.”

“By Portman Jewelers.  A name with a long-standing reputation for fine jewelry.  One would hope it was well-deserved.”  She nearly winced at her own arrogance, and reminded herself it was for a good cause – getting rid of the last trace of Banner Westfield.  “As for its intrinsic value, well, I am in possession of the original receipt for this ring.  The price was quite impressive.  I would hope that a diamond ring costing as much as my BMW would be worth what my husband paid.”  Whoops – the BMW had been Banner’s idea, too.  The car would have to go.  Maybe she should make a list.

William Portman turned an interesting shade of dusky purple.  “Portman Jewelers is competitively priced.  The price on your ring was fair.  Your diamond is of exceptional quality, Miss Aims.”

“Of course it is.  Heirloom quality, you might say.  And it does come with a rather interesting history, doesn’t it?”  If you were interested in high-profile criminals who committed daring crimes like drug running and attempted murder.

Janet lifted the ring box, admiring the brilliance of the stones.  “I had many compliments on the ring.  I’m sure you could sell it again.  Or even reset the stones.  The large one must be quite valuable on its own.”

Portman took the ring from the box, allowing the diamond’s facets to catch the bright overhead lights.  Tiny arrows of color shot from its surface, as the smaller diamonds twinkled beside it.  “I don’t know.”  He spoke quietly, almost to himself.  “It would be highly irregular, against store policy.”

Janet felt a surge of excitement—if he was waffling, she had him. 

“My father still owns the store, you know,” Portman continued.  “Going strong at seventy-six.  He doesn’t care to make exceptions to the rules.”

The final hurdle; she knew just how to handle it.  “Oh yes, Lewis Portman.  I believe my mother-in-law, Elizabeth Westfield, knows him well.”  Janet inserted herself back into the Westfield family temporarily, and hoped Elizabeth wouldn’t mind.  She seemed to like Janet better than her own son these days, anyway.  “She’s purchased so many lovely pieces of jewelry from your store over the years.”  She paused deliberately.  “The Westfield’s have always been good customers of Portman Jewelers.”

“That’s true.”

She waited while he thought about the possibility of offending a long-term customer.  A wealthy long-term customer.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t give you anything near what Mr. Westfield paid for the ring.”

Warm relief coursed through her, spreading heat to her cold limbs.  “I understand completely, Mr. Portman, and I trust you to pay me whatever you think is fair.  Oh, and I wonder if you could include this in the purchase.  It was a gift from Mr. Westfield, and I would rather not keep it.”  Before he could object, she pulled a crinkled wad of tissue from her purse and set it on the counter.  Inside the thin wrapping, metal rattled against glass.

Portman frowned at the tiny bundle as if she’d placed a toad on his immaculate display case. “I really don’t think—”

Sensing rejection, Janet rushed to remove the tissue before he could reject the piece unseen.  A double-strand pearl necklace slithered out, followed by a clunk from the attached pendant.  Portman stopped talking.

Janet angled the pendant toward Portman.  Inside an ornate, filigreed circle of gold, a large red stone glowed beneath the store’s strong fluorescent lights.  “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it somewhere else.  I just want to get rid of it.”  No sense blowing the whole deal because he didn’t want her ugly necklace.

Portman leaned closer.  So did Ellie, showing the first glimmer of interest in the proceedings.  “When did you get that?” Ellie asked.  “It’s kind of gaudy, isn’t it?”

Janet nodded.  “Banner bought it for my birthday.  I didn’t want to offend him by not wearing it, but it’s awfully heavy, and not my style.”

Portman touched the pearled chain, using his finger to spread it across the glass, giving him a better view of the pendant.  Janet said nothing, watching his expression grow thoughtful.  He was obviously intrigued as he lifted the necklace and let the pendant dangle.  Areas of solid gold were decorated with curlicues and raised gold beads.  In Janet’s opinion, it missed being pretty and went straight to tacky. 

“Where did your husband buy this?” he asked without looking away from the necklace.

She was tempted to correct her marital status, but decided not to distract Portman from his obvious fascination with the necklace.  If she’d known it would get this sort of reaction, she would have shown it to him before the ring.

“I don’t know where he bought it.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I have,” Portman murmured, lost in his examination.  “Somewhere.  The style is quite old; it might be a copy of a museum piece.  Quality workmanship…”  His voice faded out as he fumbled beneath his collar, pulling out a chain with a gold hexagon on the end.  He opened it like a jackknife, revealing a jeweler’s loupe.  Portman held it to his eye and peered closely at the stone.  Seconds passed.  He tilted the pendant at different angles, still saying nothing.  Janet wondered if he’d forgotten about her.

Portman finally looked up, dropping the loupe to let it hang over his tie.  “Fifteen thousand.”

Her mouth opened, but it took a couple more seconds for words to come out.  “Sorry, what?”

“Five for the ring, and ten for the necklace.  You understand, I’m taking a big chance on the ring.  It’s possible no one will want it, with its shady history.”  He didn’t even look embarrassed when he said it.

Janet stared.  The ring was worth ten times what he offered, but she hadn’t expected more.  It was the offer for the necklace that threw her.  It had been an after-thought to bring it along, and she would have been thrilled if he’d offered a few hundred dollars for it.

“Ten thousand dollars for the necklace?”

“Again, a risk on my part.”

He didn’t strike her as the type to take risks with money.  “Then the stone is real?”

“Real?  Yes, it’s a gemstone.”

“A ruby?”

The corner of his mouth gave an arrogant twitch upward.  “No.  Quality rubies don’t come that large.  I’m sure it’s a spinel.”

His expression was unreadable.  She had a feeling he wouldn’t lie to her, but he also wouldn’t offer information.  “Is that good?”

“Depends.  Historically, they were often mistaken for rubies and used in fine pieces of jewelry, most notably in England’s Imperial State Crown.  Today, they are less common but smaller ones are quite affordable.”

She tried to sort out the pertinent facts.  “Are you saying this could be one of those historically fine pieces?”

He shifted from one foot to the other, looking suddenly uncomfortable.  “Possibly.  It could also be a modern knock-off and relatively worthless.”  He pursed his lips as he took her measure, probably weighing how far he could push her.  “My father is the expert on antique jewelry.  If you’d like to wait a couple days for him to look at it—” 

And risk having him reduce the price to two hundred dollars?  “No need.  I accept your offer.”

Portman gave a brisk nod.  “Is a check okay?”

“Of course.”

He moved quickly to the back of the store.  Ellie grabbed her arm.  “Are you crazy?  What’s the hurry?  You should let Rocky look at the necklace.  No one knows more about precious gems than he does, and he wouldn’t lie to you.”

“I don’t think Mr. Portman is lying.”

“And he’s not telling you the whole truth, either.  That necklace could be worth a fortune.  Rocky would know.  Why don’t you let me call him?”

Rocky again.  Just the thought of him made her all jumpy and nervous inside.

Making an effort to keep her voice calm, she said, “I’ll take the opinion of a professional over an ex-con jewel thief.”  She almost winced at her own words, they sounded so harsh and unfair, but she really wanted to steer Ellie off this topic.

“Jack’s an ex-con,” Ellie said, unoffended.

“That’s different.  Banner framed him, he was innocent.”  She could never think of Jack as an ex-con, and she knew Ellie couldn’t, either.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t helping her argument against Rocky.  “Rocky was framed, too,” Ellie pointed out.

She knew.  She’d never asked for the details, but she believed Ellie, and deep down inside she knew Rocky was a good person.  He also stirred other feelings deep down inside her, feelings that she wasn’t ready to have yet.

“It’s not fair to think of him as a jewel thief,” Ellie said, still stuck on defending the man who’d become her business partner and her husband’s best friend.

“I don’t want to think of him at all.”

Ellie narrowed her eyes as if trying to read behind Janet’s stubborn expression, which made her nervous, since no one knew her better and eventually she’d figure it out.  Thankfully, Portman reappeared with her check, giving her an excuse to change the subject.  She thanked him, tucked it into her purse, and motioned Ellie toward the door.

Ellie wasn’t ready to drop the subject.  Once back in the June sunlight, she said, “Everyone likes Rocky.  I can’t believe you don’t.”

Probably because she did like him, far more than she wanted to.  But it was safer to pretend she didn’t.

She sighed dramatically.  “Okay, let’s skip the set-up.  I can see you’re determined to make me like Rocky.  What does he have to do with this favor you want?  Because I’m sure I can continue to dislike the man while doing whatever it is you want me to do.”  Or at least suppress her interest long enough to do whatever it was and get out of there.

Ellie sighed.  “Probably.  But you can’t let it show, because you’ll be in public.  I need you to cover for me, helping Rocky with a demonstration we scheduled for tomorrow night.”

“For Red Rose Security?  I don’t know anything about your business.”

“You don’t have to.  You just have to act as Rocky’s assistant.  He’ll show you everything you need to know.”

“Uh-huh.”  She bet he would.  “You know, you look so innocent with those big blue eyes and your hair in a cute little ponytail.  Almost like you aren’t trying to set me up.”

“I’m not.”  At Janet’s skeptical look, she threw up her hands.  “Honest.  Jack and I just finally want to take our delayed honeymoon.  But I had the brilliant idea to have Rocky speak to some women’s groups about home security, since he’s so charming they fall all over themselves making appointments for personal consultations.  We get a ton of business that way.  You know I’m right, you’ve seen how they respond to him.”

It was true, women ate up that big, lopsided grin combined with his former bad-boy life of crime, which Rocky always admitted to.  His burglary skills were his credentials.  Between his expertise at advising clients on the best security systems, and Ellie’s skills at planning and organization, their fledgling security business was booming.

Janet motioned toward her car, parked a couple spaces away, to keep Ellie talking as they walked.  “It’s not hard, you just need to be an extra set of hands, then set up appointments for anyone who wants to make them.  I’d ask Lisa, but she can’t get a sitter at night, and anyway I told her the job never required evening hours.  I cancelled everything else for the next two weeks, but I can’t get out of this one.  I know you’re busy trying to re-establish Aims Air Freight, but—”

“Okay, okay, okay,” she relented with a groan.  “I’m not going to keep my best friend from her honeymoon.”
 
Janet started the car, her racing heart sounding louder than the engine.

Five minutes later, Janet could still feel Ellie studying her as she drove.  “You know, he doesn’t feel the same way about you.  He thinks you’re great.”

Oh, she knew.  Better than she’d ever let on to Ellie.  He hadn’t made it a secret, and resisting a devilishly cute, smooth-talking hunk of man went against some basic instinct that she had to stomp down every time she saw him.

“If you didn’t already know him, I’d introduce you, because I think you two would be great together.  Did you know he’s nearly at the top of his class in law school?  Smart guy.  Plus he’s cute, and funny, and he loves kids, like you.”

Another perfect man.  Although Rocky was possibly the real thing, unlike her ex-husband, who had hidden a psychopathic personality behind a guise of perfection.  She’d paid a big price for that little lapse in judgment on her part; so big that she didn’t know if she could ever trust her instincts again.  If Banner had come with the warning, “Willing to screw you over to get what I want,” she could have saved herself a lot of time and heartache.

Ellie was still watching her with a bemused expression.

“Stop matchmaking, El.  You found the only perfect guy out there, and I’m willing to settle for watching from the sidelines.”

“Jack is perfect,” she agreed.  “And no, you aren’t.”

Trust a best friend to point out when you’re lying.  “Stop being a pain in the butt and tell me about this honeymoon of yours.  Where are you going to go?”

Ellie took the hint and quit lobbying for Rocky in favor of talking about her trip.  It kept them occupied until they got to Ellie’s house.  She pulled in the driveway behind Jack, who was standing beside his car with a well-built, tanned man in a Hawaiian shirt and cut-off shorts.  Rocky.

“Crap.”

Ellie laughed.


Not saying hello would be rude.  She was willing to tarnish her reputation that much, but Ellie took her sweet time getting out of the car, long enough for Rocky to stroll over to the driver’s side.  Not lowering the window would be beyond rude, and would probably make Ellie mad.  Crap again.

She hit the power switch and ordered herself to relax.  Rocky waited for the glass to lower all the way, then folded his arms on the open window and leaned down.  His dark eyes were at a level with hers, close enough for her to appreciate the thick lashes that any woman would have envied.


“Hey, Janet.”  His mouth curved into the lopsided smile she’d prepared for, but something still tripped in her chest.
“Hi.”

“Still avoiding me?”

Heat threatened to creep up her neck to her face.  “Still deluding yourself that everything I do revolves around you?”

“Interesting fantasy.”   His gaze wandered over her for several long seconds while she tried not to squirm.  “Nice haircut.  It looks good on you.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled, unable to stop the automatic response that good manners demanded.  Damn her proper upbringing.  “I thought you liked long hair.”  It was the only defiant thought that came to mind.

His smile grew.  “Is that why you cut it?”

“No!”  This time she felt the blush reach her cheeks and was furious at her own reaction.  The idea that cutting her hair had anything to do with him was absurd, but he always seemed to keep her off-balance.  She needed to take the lead instead of letting him manipulate the conversation.  “I just learned I’m filling in for Ellie at some demonstration you’re doing tomorrow night.  Can you give me the time and place?”

“I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“I’ll meet you there,” she started to protest.  But when Rocky moved his hand and she felt his fingers brush her cheek, her words faltered.

“A mosquito,” he explained, while she narrowed her eyes.  “If we use one car we save gas.  It’s ecologically responsible.”

He knew her well enough to throw out the one reason she wouldn’t argue with.  No doubt Ellie had been talking about her.  “Fine.”  She looked pointedly at his shirt.  “Are you dressing like that?”

He pretended surprise.  Glancing at the shirt, one of several that Ellie called his “surfer dude” look, he asked, “Is there something wrong with pineapples and palm fronds?”

She considered the loud yellow and green pattern.  “I’m gonna go with yes.”

He looked amused.  “Don’t worry, tomorrow night I will wear what proper Bloomfield Hills ladies expect me to wear.”

She took that to mean something conservative and expensive.  She had a wardrobe full of that.  “Okay, I’ll be ready.”

“I can come early if you’d like.  We can practice.”

She recognized the unspoken meaning, but was annoyed enough that she didn’t flush at the thought.  “No thanks, I don’t need practice.”

He winked.  “Good to know.  See you tomorrow.”

Arrogant jerk.  He stepped back as she jammed the car into reverse.  She barely remembered to wave at Ellie and Jack before speeding off.

*****

Rocky strolled back up the driveway.  Jack was watching his wife’s rear end appreciatively as she walked to the house before turning his attention back to the matter at hand.  Digging into his pocket, he handed over the house keys.  “Ellie said you only have to water the plants once.”

Uh-huh.  That wasn’t the thought behind that carefully neutral expression.  “And what did she say about Janet?”

Jack’s mouth quirked upward, obviously unperturbed at relaying his wife’s message.  “That you shouldn’t rush her.”

“Who’s rushing?  I’ve known her a year.”

Jack leaned against the car, folding his arms.  “Yeah, I was there when you met.  You decided you wanted her after knowing her a whole two hours.  You don’t call that rushing?”

“This from the man who got engaged after knowing a woman—what, two minutes?”

Jack’s composure slipped into a slight frown.  “That doesn’t count.  It wasn’t real for at least a week.”  Seeing Rocky’s smile, he apparently thought better of using the details of his impromptu engagement to Ellie as a shining example of restraint.  “Come on, Rocky, Ellie has a point.  I know you’re set on putting your life back together.  You’ve done a good job of it too, starting the business with Ellie and going to law school.  But you don’t have to have everything all at once.  You can’t just go out and get an instant wife and family.”

“What family?  Janet doesn’t have kids.  And I’m not looking to marry her, just be with her.  You know, in that very special way that requires taking all your clothes off.”  Crude guy humor was safer than admitting the truth, that he just might want something more with this woman.

Jack snorted.  “It doesn’t all happen that fast, just because you want it to.  And you can’t expect her to accommodate the accelerated schedule you’ve made for your life.”

“Overlooking the fact that it happened exactly that fast for you, I have to repeat, I’ve known Janet for a year.  Hell, I knew her six months before I even kissed her.  That’s beyond patient for me.  I never even had a relationship that lasted that long.”

Jack’s brow lifted.  “You kissed her?”

“You mean it wasn’t a household news flash?  She didn’t tell Ellie?  Those two talk about everything.”

Jack waved it off.  “I’m sure she told Ellie.  But no one told me.  When did this happen?”

He didn’t even question his friend’s intrusion on what he might normally consider private business.  He’d met Jack in jail, where privacy was nearly impossible and personal issues were discussed openly.  Jack Payton was closer to him than his own brother.  “It was here, at your New Year’s Eve party.”

Jack made a scoffing noise.  “New Year’s kisses don’t count.”

“It wasn’t like that.  And believe me, this one counted.”

At least he gave it a moment’s consideration.  “Still, I gotta trust Ellie on this.  You might be moving too fast.  If she’s not ready, you’ll blow it.”

It was a valid point.  Janet had been uncertain and scared after her disastrous marriage to Banner.  But her confidence was back now, she laughed a lot, and had plans for her future.  He needed her to know he wanted to be part of that future.

“I think she likes me.”

“Right.  That’s why she acts like she wants nothing to do with you.”

He looked down the street where Janet’s car had disappeared, smiling as he thought about it.  “That’s exactly what I’m hoping.”