I want you to do better than I did, Charlie. I want you to make the world a better place.
Mom’s words filtered through my head as I scanned the crowd at the nightclub. Usually I could push thoughts like this aside. Put them away while I was working. But tonight, they stuck like glue, repeating in a loop.
It was making this con especially difficult. And it had been a tough fucking nut to begin with.
“Charles,” Veronica purred, cupping my face in her hand. “You pay no attention to me. You know I don’t like it when your mind wanders.”
I pasted on a smile. Veronica Rockingham, Lady Bushby—yep, that title was for real—was my latest mark. She was the daughter of a Duke. Filthy rich. She’d recently made headlines when her entire staff had gone to jail on drug charges. Rumor had it she’d hidden her cocaine in their quarters so she wouldn’t get caught.
Having “dated” her over the past few weeks, I could confirm that rumor was indeed true. I’d seen her snort so many things I was shocked she had any septum left.
Jimmy, my boss—more like my jailer—was careful when it came to choosing our marks. We only conned people who could afford it. Who deserved it. And Veronica definitely deserved to be taken for a ride.
“I’m sorry, dahling,” I said, trying on my cut glass British accent. I’d actually gotten pretty damn good at it. “You know I’ve only got eyes for you.”
Veronica’s gaze flicked to my mouth. She gave my face a hard squeeze before letting me go.
“You’d better.” She looked up from the table, snapping her fingers at Georgie, who was playing the role of a harried waiter tonight. “You! Get me another vodka. And get one for Charles, too.” She looked at me. “Maybe if I get you drunk enough, I can finally have my way with you.”
I bit my tongue. Nothing quite like the casual mention of rape to get my blood boiling.
I was the Romeo of Jimmy’s crew—the one who seduced marks. But I had strict rules. The biggest one being that I never actually slept with the women. I showed them a good time, sure. I wined and dined them. Dated them like I would any other girl. I never took it any further than kissing, though.
I didn’t need to, and I definitely didn’t want to. The women I conned were all like Veronica. Beautiful, but so entitled and so rude that any attraction I would’ve felt for them shriveled up and died on the spot. It didn’t help they were from a completely different world than mine. I’d never had a damn thing in common with any of them, despite my valiant efforts to find something, anything, to have a real conversation about.
The nightclub was packed. Music pumped from the speakers, wordless house stuff that set my teeth on edge. But Veronica was enjoying it, which was the important thing. We were seated at the best table, tucked away into a corner. I glanced toward the hidden door in the wall opposite from where we sat. It was open just a crack. I could see my brother Owen peeking through it, waiting for my signal.
I gave my head a single shake. Not yet.
Putting my arm on the back of the sofa, I let Veronica curl herself into my torso.
“I’m bored,” she whined.
“You usually know how to entertain yourself,” I said, nodding at her clutch on the low table in front of us.
Veronica scratched my chest with her first finger. “You gonna join me this time?”
“Allergies,” I said, sniffing. “You know I’d sneeze the stuff all over the place, love. I don’t want to waste it.”
“But I’ve got more at home. Lots more.”
That was an understatement if I’d ever heard one.
I pressed a kiss to her temple. “You go ahead.”
“You’re such a prude,” she huffed, rolling her eyes before leaning forward to reach for the clutch. She dug out a small plastic baggie, then got to work cutting neat lines of white powder on the table with her credit card.
I took advantage of her momentary distraction to look up and give Owen a nod.
Sixty seconds later, he burst through the door, a string of policemen following behind. The lights went on; the music stopped.
“Police!” Owen shouted. “Everyone get the fuck out!”
Veronica, who’d been poised over the table with a rolled up hundred pound note in her hand, bolted upright.
“Bloody hell! Charlie, we’ve got to get out of here!” she barked.
But it was already too late. Owen was at our table, pointing a disconcertingly realistic Glock at Veronica. Behind him, people ran through the doors in a steady, fast moving stream, emptying the dance floor.
I glanced at my watch. We’d practiced this dozens of times before. It took no more than two minutes to empty the club.
In the meantime, Owen—dressed in a police constable uniform, complete with domed hat and badge—was toying with Veronica.
“Hands up,” he said.
“It’s not mine, I swear it,” Veronica replied, tossing the bill onto my lap before holding her hands up. “It’s his. He made me—”
“Save your sob story. It’s all on camera.” Owen nodded at the red dot that glowed from the ceiling above her head.
Veronica swallowed. “Do you know who my father is? He’ll ruin you. He’ll ruin the lot of you!” Her voice pitched higher. She’d been caught red handed, and she knew it.
I bit back a smile. Glanced over Owen’s shoulder. The club was empty.
I gave him another nod.
“You know,” he said to Veronica. “We could make this all go away.”
Veronica met his gaze head on. This woman was calculating to the bitter end.
Owen lowered his gun. “All we need are some numbers.”
“Numbers,” he repeated. “Routing numbers, to be specific.”
Veronica looked at him for another beat, head held high even as a blush crept over her cheeks.
“Fine,” she clipped at last. “Hand me my clutch.”
* * *
I licked my thumb, counting out a handful of bills.
“Here you are,” I said, passing them to Liam, the last of our fake policemen. “Thank you for your service.”
“You know I love working for you, Charlie,” Liam replied. “Ring me up anytime, yeah? I’ve always wanted to play Batman.”
“Batman,” I said. “Right. Of course. But wouldn’t I use the bat signal then?”
Liam laughed. “You’ve got my number,” he said before heading out the door.
I was about to do the same when I felt a tap at my shoulder. It was Georgie. He’d changed out of his waiter’s uniform and was wearing sweatpants and a jacket. He looked tired.
“Hey,” he said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “Jimmy wants to see you.”
My stomach clenched. Jimmy wanting to see me was never a good thing, considering my brother and I owed the guy over one hundred thousand pounds.
“All right,” I said. I looked at him. “But before I go—everything all right?”
“Cara thinks she’s pregnant.” He shook his head, sniffling.
I raised a brow. “You do know how it works, right?”
“Sod off,” Georgie said.
I peeled off the biggest bills from the wad in my hand and pressed them into Georgie’s chest. “Here. Buy Cara some flowers and take her out to dinner. This is good news, and you should celebrate.”
“Is this an advance on my cut?” Georgie looked down at the bills.
“It’s from mine.” Owen and I would probably never pay Jimmy off anyway. Not at the rate we were going. “Consider it an early baby gift.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re a gem, Charlie. Thank you.”
Tugging a hand through my hair, I headed for Jimmy’s office.
I thought about mom on the way. She’d moved the three of us—her, Owen, and me—from South Carolina to her native London when I was eighteen. Dad had dropped out of the picture for good years before. “Choose a better partner than I did,” she’d said with a rueful laugh. “Choose a better life.”
Mom was a line cook by trade, but it was her sandwiches that had been the stuff of legend. My stomach rumbled at the memory of her chicken salad croissants and Reubens on marbled rye toast. Safe to say she’d passed her passion on to Owen and me.
She’d always dreamed of opening a deli. A dream mom had realized when she leased a tiny space here in London in Soho. She’d opened The Sandwich Shop close to eight years ago, and Owen and I had been her first employees.
Not long after, she’d been diagnosed with cancer. She was gone three years later, leaving the shop to Owen and me. While we loved making sandwiches, we had no clue what the fuck we were doing business-wise; mom had always handled that stuff. Wasn’t long before we were running behind on rent and payments to our vendors. I applied for business loans from all sorts of banks. But every last one turned us down.
Then Owen had shown up to the deli one day with an envelope full of cash. Ten thousand pounds.
“I got it from a guy,” he’d said, not meeting my eyes.
I nearly punched Owen in the throat when I found out that “guy” turned out to be Jimmy Hanson, a local loan shark and conman. The vig on the loan was astronomical. Jimmy had demanded we pay him twenty thousand pounds no more than two weeks later.
Of course we hadn’t had a chance in hell of making the payment. The interest on the loan continued to compound. Wasn’t long before we owed Jimmy six figures.
We sent him a set amount of cash every month from our paychecks at the deli. But that wasn’t nearly enough to cover what we owed. So Jimmy “invited” us to play parts in his cons to make up the difference. Blame it on my big brother complex, but I tried to keep Owen in smaller “roles” for the cons while I took the bigger ones. I was a better actor, for one thing. And for another, it freed up more of Owen’s time so he could keep a regular schedule at the deli. He had more of a talent in the kitchen than I did. Although my sandwich skills were definitely nothing to scoff at.
Five years later, we were still working off those six figures, one con at a time, to keep the deli’s doors open. At this rate, we’d never get out from under Jimmy’s thumb.
We’d never have our freedom.
Mom would turn over in her grave if she knew what Owen and I were up to. I preferred not to think about it. It was just too damn depressing.
I was surprised to see Jimmy standing by the door in his office. He was usually sitting behind his desk, hammering away at his ancient behemoth of a calculator. But tonight he was on the opposite side of the desk, leaning against it. His legs were crossed, and he plucked thoughtfully at his bottom lip. A manila folder was tucked under his arm.
He was slickly dressed, like always. Sharply cut suit. Shoes shined. Not a hair out of place. That was the thing about Brits—they always dressed to the nines, even the criminals.
His expression lit up when he saw me.
“Charlie! Brilliant work tonight. Just brilliant. What a happy accident that our paths have crossed, yeah? I know you didn’t set out to be a con. But bloody hell, you’ve made a good one. Very good indeed.”
I leaned against the jamb, tucking a hand into the pocket of my trousers. “You said you wanted to see me?”
He held out the folder. “I’ve got something big.”
My heart dipped. Then I took a breath, getting my pulse under control. I never allowed myself to think this could be it—the job that would finally let Owen and I pay off our debt. Because that job didn’t exist. At least not in Jimmy’s corner of the underworld.
“I’m listening,” I said, suppressing a yawn. I’d worked all day at the deli, and then had come straight to the club for prep. I was so tired my eyes were fucking burning. I needed some sleep. Although Owen and I had to be up at the ass crack of dawn for The Sandwich Shop’s morning crowd.
“What if I told you we had the chance to take down the biggest wankers of them all?”
I furrowed my brow. “Biggest wankers? Are you talking about the Kardashians? Because I actually admire their business mod—”
“No! Not the Kardashians. I’m talking about the royal family.”
My heart dipped again. Deeper this time.
Jimmy hated “toffs”—British slang for hoity toity rich people. But he absolutely despised the royal family with the fury of a thousand burning suns.
He had good reason. Jimmy was the illegitimate son of Prince Alexander, the Queen of England’s late husband. The product of an affair between the Prince and Jimmy’s mother back in the fifties. Alexander had been married to the Queen for several years by then.
The royal family had gone to great pains to cover the whole thing up. He’d said that when he’d been born, the Prince had totally cut off Jimmy and his mother, who was twenty two at the time. Alexander never reached out. Never visited. Never even acknowledged Jimmy’s existence. All Jimmy ever got from him was an allowance of a few hundred pounds a year.
I’d heard the story a hundred times. The Prince had hung Jimmy and his mother out to dry. They barely made ends meet, while Alexander had continued to live in palaces and travel on private jets. Conning rich folks like our friend Veronica was Jimmy’s way of getting revenge on the family who refused to acknowledge him.
Not that it excused the life of crime he led. But having grown up fatherless myself, I understood his anger.
“What’s the play?” I asked.
“In a nutshell? Seduce Princess Jane. Get into her apartment at Primrose Palace. Steal the Warhol in her bedroom.”
This time my heart did a full on lurch into my mouth. I swallowed it, clearing my throat.
“How much is it worth?” I said. “The Warhol?”
“I’ve already got a buyer lined up.” Jimmy knew all the shitbags in London. No surprise he knew someone who was in the market for ridiculously expensive stolen art. “He’s offered us five million pounds for it.”
I swear to Christ I blacked out for a moment while the number ricocheted inside my head.
Five million pounds. Even split so many ways—even after Jimmy took his cut—Owen and I would still be left with a fuck ton of money.
I’d stolen countless times. Seduced heiresses and the bored daughters of shipping magnates, too. But there had never been this much money on the line before. Not even close. Five million pounds—hell, that was more than enough to pay off our debt.
More than enough to buy our fucking freedom.
Jimmy was grinning down at me, blue eyes a little squinty.
“I see your wheels turning,” he said. “To answer your question—yes. Your cut would cover your outstanding loan. No more payments. No more cons.”
I took a deep breath through my nose. A breath that shook, just a little.
“No more cons,” I sputtered. “Do I have your word?”
Jimmy held out his hand. “You have my word.”
I took it, giving him a firm handshake. I wasn’t sure if I believed him. But what choice did I have? The guy had me by the balls.
“How much time do we have to prep?” I asked.
“Timeline’s tight. We’re looking at June—four weeks.” Jimmy stood, crossing his arms. “My sources tell me the Queen has invited some of the world’s most eligible bachelors to her box at The Royal Ascot. She intends to set Jane up with one of them. I imagine old Margaret wants her granddaughter to marry someone more suitable this time around.”
Jane’s marriage to some city boy banker had imploded a couple years ago, providing the tabloids with endless fodder. I remembered seeing her face splashed across front pages everywhere. The headlines were always about her partying. The money she spent on trips to Vegas and Ibiza.
“And you can get me into the box?” I asked.
Jimmy nodded. “The arrangements have been made, yes.”
“Four weeks.” I opened the folder and scanned its contents. “I can work with that.”
There was an invitation to The Royal Enclosure at Ascot, Britain’s most famous horse racing ground. A card from a tailor on Savile Row. Maps of Primrose Palace, printouts of the Warhol—a neon blue and yellow portrait of Grace Kelly, how fitting—and dossiers on all the royals. Jane, her three brothers, her sisters-in-law.
I didn’t ask Jimmy how he’d gotten all this stuff. It had to be classified information. Honestly, I didn’t want to know. Jimmy was a powerful guy. A shady guy. Asking too many questions would only get me in trouble.
This would be my last fucking con anyway. The thought made me dizzy with relief. Five years and how many cons later, Owen and I had a way out.
Finally. Jimmy would put down the gun he’d held to our heads for so long.
At least that was the hope.
“I play a pretty great douchebag billionaire,” I said, holding up the pass to The Royal Enclosure.
Jimmy nodded. “If Jane’s ex-husband is any indication, she’s partial to wankers. So douchebag billionaire is just the ticket. Piece of cake for you, Romeo.”
I closed the folder. “I’ll round up a crew and start preparations first thing tomorrow.”
I didn’t know much about Jane. But she sounded like another Veronica. Another entitled trust fund kid who couldn’t tell her ass from her elbow.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing I couldn’t handle.
Not when freedom was on the line.