What can I say? I like nice things.
I love nice things. I crave nice things. I have to have them.
The feel of silk. The scent of Ralph Lauren. The pinch of a Jimmy Choo.
What’s the point of living without luxury?
Don’t even get me started on my shoe collection.
Anytime I get a little down—going up a few pounds on the scale, or after getting into a screaming match with my annoying boss—all I need is a fresh pair of red-bottomed Louboutins to breathe life back into my soul.
I sound like a shallow girl.
I have a heart. One as big as my curvy ass, in fact.
I’m a medical assistant. Paid by the hour to do the dirtiest work you can imagine.
And my place of employment?
A drafty old nursing home.
Not the posh kind the rich kids pop their aging parents into and forget they ever even had parents.
Their dollars drain from their padded bank accounts right along with their guilt.
No glitz, no glam. Just an understaffed, poorly maintained, New York City home for the elderly. A drab, crumbling gray building tucked in a poor neighborhood.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Our patients, or my family as I call them, don’t have a penny to their name.
We do our best with the little bit of assistance they get.
Outdated meds? We look the other way. Past date food from the bakery down the road? Our morning feast. Ms. Tulla Gold in room 101 used to be a nurse. On days when she doesn’t think she’s a famous talk show host, she’s very helpful to us, doing the morning rounds with her blood pressure cuff.
We make it work.
I wear scrubs for a living. A far cry from my closet full of couture. Ones with tacky, colorful prints dotting the scratchy fabric—the patterns make my patients smile. And the shoes we have to wear, my goodness, how disgusting can footwear be? Thick soles, black Velcro sneakers to protect my arches from the concrete floors. Not flattering for anyone, but especially ugly on a twenty-five-year-old.
And I would never think of getting a blowout before work. It’s ponytails or messy buns, every day, all day.
But I love my job. And the only thing I love more than my fancy labels are my patients. Especially the saddest cases.
The ones with no visitors.
They break my heart. And I’m there for them till the end.
I hold their hands when they take their last breaths.
But I’m not perfect. I can’t seem to help myself… I just like nice things.
But the items I crave aren’t accessible to me on my meager salary. And until I can get myself a sugar daddy and pull a Pretty Woman, marching myself into Daughtry’s, demanding service, I’m going to have to do what I do best.
Take what I want.
And never get caught.
My latest acquisition sits in a prettily decorated store window, taunting me every day as I make my trek to the bakery in my soft-soled shoes.
This window doesn’t just belong to any store—it’s the store. The one everyone in New York City who’s anyone shops at. From recently made celebrities with cash falling out of their pockets to the highest class of old money in New York.
Even the mafia.
I’ve seen the well-groomed gangsters with their slicked-back dark hair and pinstriped suits marching out the door with their purchase. A pair of two-carat diamond earrings, an apology gift after their wife finds out they have a hot little goomar on the side. Armed with one of those little red bags, the man knows his wife will forget to care she’s become number two in his heart.
Because in his guilt-laden, bulging wallet, she’s still number one.
Oh, those red bags.
Just seeing one swinging freely from the hand of a millionaire makes my heart pound faster. Blood rushes past my ears, my eyes widening as I picture the small red leather box that rests within—as red as my gel-manicured fingernails.
On top of that little box, the name boldly emblazoned with curving gold letters, right on the front…
Saturdays are my one day off. The day I do my collecting. I hit a different borough every week. No more than five stores, no less than three. I take what I want, then I go home with my spoils. Stuffing my goodies underneath my bed. In the tiny wardrobe that’s so full I can barely close the doors. But even then, as I lie in bed at night, awake on the sagging mattress of my twin frame, my mind goes to those little red boxes. That word so powerful, it’s written in gold: Bachman’s.
I love my pretty things. But I want that ring.
It’s getting harder to cover up my little habit. When my co-workers compliment me, or ask where I’ve gotten such a great piece on our salary, I tell them it’s a knockoff I’ve purchased from Canal Street. Or that my rich big sister, the one they’ve never met—and who doesn’t exist—has given me another gift.
So generous of her. She’s such a doll.
None of my conquests compare to what sits in the window of that jewelry store.
Just thinking about that ring sends the nervous butterflies to flight in my tummy. The ones I get just before I make my move.
A blue diamond.
The rarest in the color family of diamonds. And at three carats, well, let’s just say the price on the tag is a number so big I have a hard time gathering up the guts it would take to steal it.
But I have to have it.
I can’t help but feel she’ll one day be mine.
Every day I walk by it. Every day, with my bag of stale buns in one hand, coffee in the other, I shuffle past it, my eyes wide as they take in its beauty. Afraid I’ve been caught staring, I always take a nervous sip from my cheap black coffee.
When I walk by Bachman’s, picturing myself inside, purchasing a necklace or perhaps a simple bracelet, my ugly work shoes and cheap brew melt away.
In my imagination I become her.
Today is no different.
After exchanging words with my nasty boss, I head out to the bakery to get yesterday’s goodies for my friends. Now, a smile stretches on my face just thinking of the smile on theirs when I get the treats back home to them.
A crisp, early fall breeze caresses my cheeks, tangling my short dark hair that for some crazy reason, I’ve chosen to let hang loose around my face this morning.
Fall in New York is my favorite time of year.
The leaves are just beginning to change. Red and gold surrounds me. I lift my hand, attempting to gather a falling, swirling leaf. It lands in my opened palm.
Pinching the stem between my fingers, I twirl the leaf, enjoying the beauty of its colors. I release it and it flutters to the ground to join the others. Inhaling deeply, I glide over the sidewalk, my work shoes feeling almost like sandals.
The crisp air, the autumn beauty, it makes a fullness well in my heart… On the days Ms. Jones wakes up and her knees don’t ache, she smiles and says, Must have woken up on the right side of the bed. That’s how I feel today.
Though the trees are beautiful, our street is not. Trash blows in the wind. Dirty kids with no coats tug on mismatched shoes as they run to catch the bus. A couple of mangy cats fight over a discarded fishbone—something you’ve probably only seen in cartoons.
I turn the corner, walk a few more blocks, and I’m in another world.
Women with slicked-back hair, their oversized sunglasses covering half of their perfectly done faces, talk loudly into their cell phones. Their expressions say, Look at me, I’m gorgeous and I’m important. The men, their suits costing more than my entire tuition had, brush past me with their muscled shoulders.
They don’t even know I exist.
I’ve gotten pretty good at being invisible. Sometimes, you must disappear to get what you want.
I turn the corner and I’m on Bachman Avenue, named, I assume after the jewelers that guard the ring I so covet. This street houses the stores that are the cream of the crop. All places I’ve never had the guts to steal from. The only reason I even discovered this part of town was the bakery is here and they were the only ones to answer my ad. Home for the aging seeks day-old pastries in exchange for smiles.
I pass Daughtry Clothiers, Clara’s Children’s Boutique. My heart beats faster just knowing I’m getting closer.
One more store, then another… there it is.
I stand in awe.
The brownstone building is strong, proud. This historical giant is much older than any of us busy pedestrians bustling past it. I wonder what history it’s seen over the past century. What secrets it holds.
A sigh escapes my lips as I stare at the gold letters.
I gaze through the window. My eyes lock on the display case holding the ring. The blue diamond glitters at me prettily in the sun.
My heart pitter-patters. A dull sweat breaks out across my hairline. I get that tingly feeling in the palms of my hands.
The itch to steal.
I shake my head, my pin-straight hair falling right back into place. I glance down at my shoes. My light blue scrubs covered in dancing kitties. I don’t look the part today. There is no way I should go in there like this. There is no way I should go in there at all, right?
My eyes go back to the diamond. The sunlight hits it perfectly. Rainbows dance along the case. The princess-cut gem stares back at me. I belong to you, it whispers. A gust of that fresh autumn air ruffles my hair. A red leaf swirls before me.
There seems to be magic in the air today.
Why not? It’s a free country. I can march in the most exclusive jewelers in New York City wearing kitten scrubs. It’s not like I’m not going to take anything. Though I daydream, I would never really steal something so valuable.
I find my head nodding. I’ve made my decision—I may as well do a quick surveillance.
Brushing imaginary lint from my clothing, I take a deep breath. Jutting my chin up as if I belong in such an establishment, I harden my gaze. I march myself down the sidewalk, right past the display.
My feet touch the store’s stone step for the first time, sending a flutter of nervous butterflies through my gut. My fingers curl around the cold metal handle. I’m surprised at the heaviness of the door as I tug at it. The weight is almost too much for my five-foot-four frame. I struggle, but with sheer will, I finally pull the thing open. The momentum is more than I am prepared for and I do a half stumble, half fall, before catching myself.
My first time entering the store is nothing like I imagined. I always thought I would plan it out, make a day of it. Wear my white Dior dress. Slick my hair back into one of those tight ponytails the businesswomen wear. Have my makeup done for free by the lady at the MAC counter who’s practically adopted me. She croons over my olive complexion, and loves how I look amazing in red lipstick. Her compliments once caused me to slip a stick of ‘ruby red’ into my purse on my way out the store.
I would breeze into Bachman’s (obviously in my fantasy I don’t have trouble pulling the door open) and demand to see the blue diamond.
To try it on.
The salesclerk would be intimidated by me. Moving quickly to satisfy what she assumes to be a wealthy young baroness. She would bring me the diamond. I would eye her, bored, and say, Sometimes a girl just got to treat herself. You know?
Today does not go that way at all.
After almost falling, I regain my balance. A burning blush rises in my cheeks. I scoot out of the way to avoid the heavy door whacking me in the ass as it closes behind me. My hand instinctually goes to my bag—the five-hundred-dollar yellow leather over the shoulder purse that’s the only splurge I’ve allowed myself to purchase, legally. Yellow because it’s so conspicuous. Who’s dumb enough to draw attention to the place they tuck their stolen goods? Smoothing my hair with my trembling hands, I will my nerves to steady.
Then, I see it for the first time.
The inside of Bachman’s.
It’s more beautiful than I’d imagined from my quick glances in the windows. The air is clean, cool. I take a deep breath. It’s the same smell you’d expect to find in a spotless museum or brand-new library. Not a speck of dust flies through the sunlit room.
The glass counters sparkle beneath the lights. No harsh LED bulbs, but a soft white warmth shines down from the heavy brass pendants that hang overhead. The counters seem to go on for miles.
This store is endless.
I hold my breath in awe as my hand flutters to my chest. The word reverently slips from my mouth.
My whisper is followed by a greeting. “Hello. Welcome. How may I help you?”
I look over my shoulder to see the face that belongs to the cheerful voice.
She is nothing like what I expect.
A girl, perhaps a few years younger than me, with blonde curls spilling over her shoulders, openly smiles at me. Her small white teeth are like pearls. Her hazel eyes are large like mine. Her gaze holds a hopeful optimism that only those with parents who love them can possess.
“How may I assist you?” she asks. A look of genuine helpfulness crosses her face as she makes her way over to me. Stopping just a few feet short of me—a polite distance—she folds her hands in front of the lap of her mint green dress.
I expected a harsh, angry, beautiful woman. Dressed in a tailored black gown. Her nose high in the air as she sniffs out my poverty.
This is not her, the arch nemesis I had dreamed up. Not a beauty, but cute. Sweet, even. Her button nose is not turned up at me. She patiently awaits my response.
Which is… what?
“I—ah… I,” I stutter.
She studies my outfit. Not in a mean way. Just an honest one. Observing her guest. “Just browsing?” she suggests helpfully.
“Y-yes,” I manage.
Her eyes light up. “Oh, goody! That means I get to make suggestions.”
She takes my hand in hers, as if she’s known me forever. She’s tugging me over to the corner that is furthest from the front of the store. Tossing her curls over her shoulders, she trills, “We just got this collection in. And it is adorable! All butterflies.”
She releases my hand. Careful not to touch the glass, she waves her fingers over the displays and sighs, “Aren’t they gorgeous? Perfect for girls our… age.”
Her pause says it all.
Girls like us. Girls who get paid by the hour. Girls who don’t really matter.
Standing here in Bachman’s, breathing the expensive air, I no longer care whether I matter.
I just want to be here. Take it all in. I meet her eyes, shooting her a timid smile.
She returns it with a grin. Just a couple of girls playing dress-up.
“Go ahead, take your time. My name is Alice. Call me if you need anything.” she says. Giving me one more warm smile, she turns to leave.
Her name is from a storybook, and it suits her. I watch as she flounces to the other side of the store.
As I turn to the case, my breath catches in my throat. Before me on the counter sits a metal black tree with thin branches. Its limbs are curled into loops and hooks. Jewelry hangs from its metal curves.
My gaze travels to a thin silver chain, dangling from the end of a branch. Hanging from the chain is a tiny diamond-encrusted butterfly. Its little wings are spread, ready for flight.
The charm reminds me of when one of our patients leaves this earth. (Die and dead are two words I do not allow at Our Home.)
As they struggle to take their last breaths, their hands feeling paper thin in mine, I imagine them as butterflies.
Delicate, fragile things. But then they beat their wings, rising above the ground, strong enough to fly away from the pain.
Reborn in beauty.
I reach out, touching the charm. It’s cool against my skin, the weight surprisingly heavy as I slide my fingertip beneath it.
She is ready to fly.
Right into my bag.
The butterfly wants to be free. To be taken home with me. To be worn around my neck, its delicate chain sparkling as it turns and twists with my movements. Only I know how special she is. She wants me to have her. If I don’t take her, inevitably some spoiled rich brat will receive her at a birthday party, along with a dozen other gifts. Toss her to the side with an unconvincing thanks, then never think of her again.
She belongs to me.
I can feel it.
“Hello, little beauty,” I whisper. “Want to come home with me?” The familiar feeling swells in my belly. Nerves, excitement, the thrill of the act. Perspiration prickles at my hairline. My palms are itchy. The little hairs on my arms all stand on end. I slip the necklace from the branch of the tree. A quick glance to my left tells me Alice is still on the other side of the store. My fingers close around the butterfly.
I slide it into my bag.
I am in such a trance, I don’t bother to do my usual sweep of the rest of the store. Normally after a steal, I would wander aimlessly about the shop, taking any attention away from the area of my crime. I never rush after a conquest. I always take my time, looking calm, collected.
But everything about today is different. I came into this store, unplanned, in my work clothes. The sales assistant was nice, young. And although I’d only planned to play act, I now have a piece of Bachman’s in my bag, ready to go home with me.
Nerves cooling, a satisfied smile sneaks up on me.
I head to the door. Alice is not looking surprised to see me leaving so soon—she probably assumes I’ve been eyeing the impossible price tags—and she calls out a kind farewell. I raise my hand in a wave of thanks. The fingers of my other hand curl around the handle of the door.
“Not so fast.”
The heavy words come growling out of thin air.
Bile rises in my throat. My heart drops. A cold sweat breaks out over my forehead.
Do I run? My fingers tighten around the handle.
“Don’t even think about it.”
The voice is shockingly commanding.
I have to obey it.
My hand drops to my side. Nausea pools in my stomach. I turn to face the owner of the voice.
My heart stops beating in my chest.
A huge man stands before me. And he’s livid.
Dark hair meticulously combed over dark brows. The broad shoulders filling out the gray suit jacket, tapering down to a single button done over a slender waist. There’s got to be rippling muscles beneath that starched white shirt. Bronzed skin that looks like it just left a Greek Island, gleaming against that white collar. His arms are crossed over his chest. His hands are huge.
And those eyes. Those flashing black eyes. He takes another step toward me and my stomach drops to my feet. He’s inches from my face and I can see they aren’t black at all. They’re an entrancing deep brown.
He’s The Looker.
“It’s… you,” I stammer.
His already creased brow further narrows. “Excuse me?” he demands. “I don’t have time for games.”
He has no idea who I am.
And I barely know him.
For the past month or so, he would come up to Jane’s floor every Sunday afternoon, visit a newer patient of hers, stay for hours, then leave just as the sun was setting. He was always courteous, but not friendly. He had an energy about him that made me keep a distance. The others didn’t sense it—they were too taken with his striking features.
He looked to be in his early thirties, and the older nurses couldn’t let a visit go by without elbowing my shy friend, saying, “Jane, you have to find out who that man is. He’s such a looker.”
Hence, he’d been given the nickname, The Looker, by the henhouse.
He repeats himself. “I said, I don’t have time for games, little girl. Now tell me what the hell you’re up to.” His fingers curl around his bicep, clutching as if he’s stopping himself from doing something he’d regret.
A shiver runs through me.
“Nothing,” I manage to murmur. “And I was just leaving.” I reach for the door once more.
The gaze he gives me stops me. My reaching hand hangs awkwardly in midair.
In a sudden movement, his arms uncross. He’s reaching toward me and I cringe. His right hand wraps around the back of my upper left arm. His strong fingers dig into my flesh. The pressure from his grip is uncomfortable, bordering on painful. Panic pulses through my body.
“Come with me,” he growls.
My feet move on their own, my mind blank, as he escorts me to the back of the store. I shoot a ‘help me’ glance at Alice, but she’s busy with a client who’s looking at the high-end stuff. The commission from one of those pieces probably pays her rent. She doesn’t even notice me.
“Where are you taking me?” I stammer, my mouth finally working. It feels as if it’s stuffed with cotton.
“To the back. To talk.” His grip tightens. The pain makes a tiny yelp escape my lips.
My mind races. What are my options?
I can scream.
I can take my chances on talking.
I can kick him in the shin and try to make a run for it. Judging by the strength in his grip I don’t stand a chance in a battle of physical wills. I sneak a glance at him out of the corner of my eye. He’s tall. Built. And furious. His chiseled features are set in a stony state. Jaw clenched, he catches me looking at him and gives me a sneer.
Okay, so I won’t try to make a break for it.
We reach what I assume is his office door. Leaving me with my last and most humiliating defense.
I can cry.
Willing the tears to come to my dry eyes, I sob the song of the poor, pitiful street wench. “I’m so sorry—I don’t make much money and the necklace was just… so… pretty.” I can feel the beginnings of a tear forming. I tell my lower lip to quiver—just a touch, don’t want to overdo. “And I just wanted… One. Nice. Thing.” I open my eyes wider, creating what I hope is a doe-eye effect. Damn, I’m good. I prepare to look up at him from underneath my mascara-coated lashes. My gaze slowly rises to meet his—first traveling over an endless stretch of muscled torso. When I see his face, I gulp.
If looks could kill, I’d be lying on the floor. Dead as a corpse.
He releases my arm.
His dark eyes flash. Challenging.
“You don’t have any nice things?” The question was innocent enough but the razor-sharp edge in his voice reawakens my fight or flight response. I’m glistening, my heart beating so loud I can hear the blood as it rushes past my ears.
His eyes fall to my purse. “And what of that Casa Blanca canary yellow leather purse on your shoulder? I believe that runs, what, five hundred?” His dark brow rises.
My fear dissipates, instantly replaced with my very quick temper.
I had scrimped, saved, and even gone without gel in my manicures for weeks just to get ahold of that bag. A friend who worked in the department store had come in and hid it for me, every morning, behind a row of black bags. It had taken months for me to save up enough to shell out for it.
But it was a classic.
And I had paid every penny. The words burst from my lips, pitiful girl act shoved aside. “Hey! I actually bought this with my own money. It’s the one thing I didn’t…” My words trail off as I realize what I’m about to reveal.
“Steal?” he asks. A satisfied smirk crosses his face, somehow making him even more handsome than before. He crosses his arms over his chest again, the material of his suit stretching and pulling to form around his muscles. He studies me for a moment.
My stomach flips, then dives into my clodhopper shoes. Heat rises in my cheeks. “What I meant to say was… that… I didn’t…”
He almost smiles, shooting me a look of mild curiosity. “Didn’t what?”
Didn’t what? Didn’t what?
I rack my brain. It comes to me and I cry out in a burst of enthusiasm, “Didn’t even get it on sale! Can you believe that? A little old medical assistant like me managed to buy a Casa Blanca, full price?”
“They never go on sale.” Uncrossing his arms, he grabs the doorknob and turns it. The door swings open. Grabbing my upper arm again, he pulls me into a small office. “But I’m guessing you already know that.”
Time to steer the conversation away from me. “How do you know so much about women’s fashion, anyway?”
Closing the door behind him, he stands before it, blocking my exit. “I dabble in what you could call import exports. But that is neither here nor there. The only thing that matters is what’s in the bag?”
As if turning itself in, the strap slips, the purse sliding from my shoulder. I grab at it, clutching the soft leather to my chest. “I don’t think you want to look in there. It’s that time of the month if you know what I mean. Might make you a tad uncomfortable. Just handfuls of tampons. Super plus, super plus plus…”
His hand shoots toward me, snatching the bag and whipping it from me. My mouth drops open, forming the unsaid word that I’m shouting in my head.
His gaze leaves mine, his hand dips into the almost empty bag. Nausea roils in my stomach.
He lifts his hand. The chain hooks around his index finger, the butterfly dangling in the air. The light dances off its tiny diamonds.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” he asks.
He speaks of the necklace, but his gaze is locked on me. His eyes travel over my body, peeling away my clothing. I stand before him, feeling naked. A tingling sensation prickles at my core. Heat rises in my face. My tongue is thick and useless in my mouth. I hope to God he can’t see how hard he’s making my nipples beneath my shirt.
He reaches out, gently taking my hand in his. Electric pulses dance over my skin where he’s touching me. He opens my palm, turning it face up. He lowers the necklace into my hand. One by one, he curls my fingers, closing them around the charm. His gaze locks on mine. A shiver runs down my spine.
“Keep it,” he says. His words sound like a threat. He tosses the purse to me.
“Thank you?” I stutter as I grab the bag. Breaking his gaze, I slip the necklace back into my purse.
“Now, we must discuss your punishment,” he says.
My body turns to ice. What the hell have I gotten myself into? I shift the strap of my bag to my shoulder. My hands are shaking, and I hide them in the pockets of my shirt. I steady my voice and say, “Punishment?”
He glares. “Yes. I think you’ll find me quite fair.”
I stare at him, my mouth gaping.
A muscle in his jaw twitches as he speaks. He has the slightest hint of an exotic accent, but I can’t place it. “I can call the police. Have you arrested for theft? That would be the proper protocol. Or…”
My fate hangs in his pause.
I gulp, arranging my face in a mask of confidence I do not feel. I raise my brow. Jut out my chin. I demand, “Or what?”
One of his arms remains crossed over his chest. The hand of his other arm goes beneath his chin. As if he’s thinking. He begins to circle me. Slow, purposeful steps as his gaze studies me. My nipples tighten beneath my bra as he comes closer to me. I can smell his cologne. Feel the air move around me as he paces.
He says, “We can take care of things the old-fashioned way. My way. Your punishment will be quick, severe. Then your crime will be forgiven.” He’s not even touching me, yet my skin raises in chill bumps. Beyond my fear, a strange sensation rises. My pussy is soaking my panties. He wants to punish me and he’s so… big… stern… and damn—he is a looker.
His anger only serves to give his handsomeness a dangerous, sexy as hell edge.
As he awaits my answer, my mind spins, my core throbs.
What am I going to do?