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Stealing the Snow Leopard's Heart (Shifter Suspense Book 3) by Zoe Chant (1)

Keeley

“Stupid, arrogant, asshole piece of shit.” Keeley Smith ground her teeth as she stalked down the corridor. “Who the fuck does he think he is?”

Keeley wrenched her cleaning cart around a corner and almost bowled over a group of guests. She froze, and hauled a professional smile onto her face, hoping none of them noticed her white-knuckle grip on the cart handle.

She needn’t have bothered.

None of the guests so much as glanced at her as they carried on down the corridor, laughing and joking. Dressed in her work uniform—white blouse, black skirt and apron—Keeley might as well have been invisible.

She stood with her head lowered as the guests passed her by. There were four of them: an older couple, a woman who looked like their daughter, and another man. A family get-together, Keeley guessed. From the way the younger woman kept flashing her left hand around, she could guess why they all looked so pleased with themselves.

The sparkly boulder on the woman’s finger wasn’t the only sign of how well-off the family was. Gold glittered on the women’s ears and necks. Both men were wearing the sort of watch that was better for telling the wearer’s annual income than the time, and their suits were tailored to effortlessly fit their bodies.

But that wasn’t the reason her heart clenched as she watched them disappear around the corner. You didn’t work at a hotel like this without getting used to rich people flashing their money around.

No. They were happy. That was the worst of it. The older two were holding hands with the easy familiarity of long-term love, and the younger couple kept bumping against each other, they were walking that close together. A happy family, celebrating together.

Keeley knew she’d never be rich. But it was the knowledge that she’d never have that sort of happiness that really hurt.

And these people have both? Come on, universe, that isn’t fair, she grumbled silently, pushing her cleaning cart to the service elevator.

The doors opened, and Keeley’s frozen smile softened into something approaching a genuine one as she saw who was already inside. “Dani!”

“Hey, girl! Didn’t your shift end an hour ago?” Dani reached forward and pulled Keeley’s cart into the elevator.

Keeley made sure the elevator doors had shut before she replied. “Meant to. Just had to finish one final call, no guesses who. Now I’ve gotta get out of here before he ‘accidentally’ spills another bottle of wine in his bed, and I get called in again.”

“Oh, gross. Room 304?” Dani made a face as Keeley nodded. “How long is he staying this time? You know, we could swap blocks if it all gets too much for you…”

Keeley mock-glared at her. “Nuh-uh. You know he doesn’t leave a tip until the last night. I’m not putting up with him for two weeks just for you to come in and snipe my tip at the last minute.”

Dani laughed. “Well, just imagine you’re punching him in the face every time you plump up the pillows on his bed. That’s what I do.”

“Yeah…” Keeley looked down at her hands, still resting on the cart handle. The scars that criss-crossed her knuckles had faded over the years, but she could still feel them as though they were fresh.

Keeley stuck her hands in her apron pocket. “That’s probably not such a great idea.”

“Well, you do you, babe.”

Keeley couldn’t get Dani’s words out of her head as she pulled on her coat over her work uniform and hurried out the service exit. The cold night air smacked her in the face.

Imagining punching asshole guests in the face wasn’t going to help her. But maybe there was something she could do to make work bearable.

It was the memory of the engagement ring on the woman’s finger that did it. The Asshole of Room 304 brought expensive stuff with him on his trips, too. Not jewellery, but high-end electronics. Phone, laptop, smart watch, that sort of thing.

Keeley’s fingers twitched. It wouldn’t be that hard to pocket something while he isn’t looking, she thought. Or even when he is looking. Hah, imagine it. He’s so busy staring at my ass he doesn’t notice me picking up his wallet.

She wouldn’t need to actually steal them. Just pick them up and move them around to confuse him. Leave him a bit off-balance, and Keeley feeling a bit more in control.

Just a bit of fun.

She flinched, her fingers clenching in her coat pockets. Fun? No. Fun was a stupid idea. Even just thinking about it was stupid. Hadn’t she learned anything ten years ago?

Have you forgotten why you’re here, busting your ass in housekeeping? You’re a good person now, remember?

Besides, who was she kidding? She couldn’t mess with a guest’s stuff and expect to get away with it. Even the suspicion of theft would be enough to get her fired, regardless of whether anything had actually gone missing or not. That was why she’d gone into housekeeping, after all. It was a job that forced her to keep to the straight and narrow.

Because getting fired was the best-case scenario, given how Keeley and this sort of “fun” tended to end up.

Keeley absently rubbed her fingers together, feeling the odd patches of numbness from her faded scars. She shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold air.

Me having fun and being happy just screws everything up. Better to be good and miserable. Life is safer that way. I’m safer that way.

Anyway, work might be shit, but she had her own apartment now. With a shower that worked. And, she was pretty sure, at least half a leftover pizza in the fridge. She could soak away the feeling of the asshole guest ogling her legs, then wrap up in bed with some delicious pepperoni and cheese and watch the trashiest TV she could find. Then get up bright and early to do some laundry before her next shift.

She sighed, and tried to convince herself it was a satisfied sigh.

“Evening, kiddo.”

Keeley jumped sideways as someone whispered in her ear. A wiry arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her back before she leapt into traffic.

“How’s my favourite niece?”

Oh, shit no.

Blood drained from Keeley’s face as she stared at the man who’d grabbed her. She would say “saved her from being flattened under a bus,” but if it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t have almost jumped into the street in the first place.

If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t have done a lot of things.

“S-Sean? What are you doing here?” She glared at the man, hating the way her voice stuttered. It’s just surprise, she told herself. You’re just… surprised.

Not terrified. Nuh-uh.

Oh, shit.

“Do I need a reason to catch up with my favorite niece?” Sean Bailey grinned at her.

Is this some sort of instant karma for thinking about stealing Asshole’s things? Keeley thought wildly. Her pulse thudded in her ears.

She hadn’t seen Sean in ten years. Ten boring, miserable, good years.

He hadn’t changed much. Same too-toothy smile, same crinkly, friendly eyes. His face was thinner, and the cords in his neck stood out more than she remembered, but other than that he was the same old Sean. The same guy she’d tagged along behind ever since she could remember, convinced he was the coolest person in the world.

God, she’d been an idiot.

Sean made a mock-sad face and tapped her under the chin. “What’s with the long face, kiddo? I thought you’d be happy to see your old uncle. And how was work?”

“You—” Keeley cleared her throat. Her mouth was so dry, it took her a couple of tries to speak again. “It was fine. Work was fine,” she muttered.

Sean winked. “Sure it was, sure. You got a moment to talk, kiddo?”

“No, I really have to get going—”

“Don’t want to miss the train, huh? I get it. Come on, I’ll walk you to the station. You’re still in that place in Queens, right?”

He found me. Keeley let Sean take her arm and lead her down the street. He found me. How the hell did he find me? How does he know where I live?

She’d been so careful. Kept her head down. No online presence, no social media, nothing.

And yet here he was. After all these years.

A shiver went down her back. If he’d found her—there had to be a reason. There had to be something he wanted.

Keeley wet her lips again. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” Please don’t say it, please don’t…

“I’ve got a job for you, haven’t I?”

Oh, no. Keeley squeezed her eyes tight shut. “I’ve already got a job,” she snarled.

“Oh, I know.” Sean let the three words hang in the air. Keeley couldn’t speak. At last the silence became too much.

“Sean, I—”

“Good job, is it? Pay you well? Treat you nice?” He plucked at the worn collar of her coat. “Can’t pay you that well. Good thing I came along, really.”

“Sean, please—”

“Won’t take you long. I’d do it myself, but you know how things are. And I’ll make it worth your while. Family rates.”

“I’m not doing it.” Keeley sucked in her breath. There. She’d said it. “I don’t want your money. I’ve got a real job now. I’ve got my own life. I don’t do… this sort of thing anymore.”

Sean’s grin got toothier, and he squeezed Keeley’s arm, just enough to let her know how much harder he could squeeze it, if he wanted to. “Listen to yourself. ‘This sort of thing’. You don’t even know what the job is, yet.”

“I don’t need to. I’m n-not doing it.” More stuttering. She was twenty-five, damn it, not some stuttering teenager. What was wrong with her?

“Really?” He yanked her around to face him, his face twisting into a snarl. “Think you’re too good for us, huh? Think you can leave us all behind?”

He squeezed harder. Keeley gritted her teeth. She would not let him know he was hurting her.

“How about I go tell the people in that fancy hotel exactly who you are, Keeley ‘Smith’? How would you like that?”

“You wouldn’t!”

“Sure I would, kiddo. Because unlike some people, I understand what family means. It means you don’t get to leave us behind.”

Keeley wanted to scream. She should say no, tell him to take his “job” and shove it, but—the hotel. She’d worked so hard to build herself a life here. If he told the management there who she used to be…

And he knew where she lived.

Her whole body sagged.

“I knew you’d come around. Aw, don’t look at me like that. It’ll be fun. It’s in your blood.” Sean shrugged off his backpack and held it out.

Keeley took it, feeling numb.

“And now I owe you one, right? Like I said, I was going to do the drop myself, but I’ve got other things on. Go on, take it, you don’t have all night. Good. Now, here’s what you have to do…”

Keeley listened mutely. The lump in her throat was so big she wasn’t sure she could speak, anyway. When Sean asked her if she understood, she nodded.

“I knew I could rely on you, kiddo. Get the job done, and I’ll come around tomorrow and we can talk about your payment.”

He sauntered off, and Keeley finally gathered the courage to ask:

“How did you find me?”

Sean stared at her over his shoulder. This time, when he grinned, it was genuine. Keeley’s stomach went cold.

“Got a new business partner, don’t I? Told me he could find anything, and I asked him to find you. Like a test run.” He winked. “It’s good, knowing who you can rely on.”

He disappeared down the street, blending in with the late-night crowds. Keeley fought back tears as she looked down at the backpack.

Ten years. Ten damned years of trying to be a good person, and now she was back where she started. Trapped. Again.

The buildings either side of the road seemed to press in on her, dark and heavy and stifling. Keeley clutched the backpack and closed her eyes until her breathing settled.

There was something hard inside it with sharp corners and long edges. She swallowed. Whatever it was, it was her responsibility now. And if she failed…

My job. My apartment. Everything I’ve worked so hard for.

* * *

Ten minutes later, Keeley stumbled down the steps to the platform for the train that would take her to the rendezvous point. She couldn’t tell whether the roaring in her ears was the noise of the train arriving or the sound of her own pulse thudding against her skull.

What did Sean say? The last car… Keeley found a seat at the very back, clutching the bag in her lap. The other passengers ignored her.

One stop. Two. A few more passengers got on and off, and eventually, Keeley was the only one left in the car.

Any other day, she would have switched cars. No way she wanted to risk the next person who got on deciding to harass the girl in the housekeeping uniform. But today…

“Fuck you, Sean,” she muttered, gritting her teeth. And suddenly—probably because he was too far away to hear her—her fear transformed into blazing anger. How dare he? How dare he pull her back into his shit?

Well, screw him. He wanted her on board? Then she was going to find out exactly what it was he’d gotten her into.

Keeley unzipped the backpack, not sure what she expected to find. Its contents had felt bulky, and now she saw that there was only one item in the pack: a black case like a briefcase, but thicker. As she touched it, its sides seemed to hum, as though there was some sort of mechanism inside, but when she held it to her ear, it was silent. She must have imagined it.

What is it? Money? Jewelry? Drugs? Keeley scowled. Knowing Sean, it could be anything. He didn’t exactly discriminate when it came to being a criminal piece of shit.

He was also a stupid piece of shit, because although the case looked expensive, it had the sort of push-lever combination lock that Keeley could break in less than a minute.

It’ll be fun.

Fuck it. Her fingers were already itching. And it wasn’t like her life could get any worse right now.

Keeley leaned over the case, her fingers moving automatically. She slid the unlock lever across, and then one by one pushed the combination numbers until she felt the slight change in pressure that told her she’d found the right number. One, two, three.

She let out a slow breath. That felt… nice. It was almost soothing, how easy some locks were to break. Child’s play. Literally. Some kids grew up with teddy bears and toy trains. Keeley had learned how to crack a lock before she could spell her own name.

The case sprang open, and Keeley stared down at the thing her uncle had blackmailed her into transporting.

“What the hell?”

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