Rent A Thief

- a contemporary romance -

Beate Boeker

Something is wrong. Her subconscious told her long before her sleep-drugged mind reacted. It was the noise. That little, crinkly noise of clothes rubbing against each other when moving. Her brain tucked the information away, and she slid into sleep again, too tired to react, too tired to grasp the significance.

Another noise . . . the soft clank a key makes when it turns in a wardrobe door. Tina sighed and turned in her sleep. How funny.

A swish. Tina moved her toes and wriggled them a bit. Yeah, the built-in wardrobe door always swished like that when opened, didn’t it?

The information her ears had collected penetrated into her brain and slotted into place with the force of an electric shock. What on earth . . . ?

Tina jerked upright as if pulled by invisible strings. She clutched the covers to her chest and stared into the face of a black-masked man.

He towered over her like a dark bird.

Tina opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Her heartbeat exploded in her ears in panic-stricken bangs.

He bent closer. A black cap shrouded the top of his head. In the moon-lit room, he was nothing but a menacing shadow. “If I were you,” his voice came soft and calm, “I would close my eyes and go back to sleep.” His eyes, visible through mere slits in the mask, glittered in the cold moonlight.

Tina blinked. She swallowed and then, without thinking, she dropped back onto the pillows, rigid, frozen stiff with fear, and forced herself to squeeze her eyes shut. Her breath came in shallow gasps. She tried to suppress it and listened with every fiber of her being. What was he doing? Did he still stare at her? Would he come closer, maybe grab her by the throat, now that she lay defenseless, waiting . . . Would the newspapers scream the headlines tomorrow “Middle-aged woman mugged in her bed?”

Again, she heard the rustle of his clothes. Tina shuddered. It took all her willpower to keep her eyes closed. The rustle seemed to move away. Or did it? Was he coming closer instead? Was he stretching his hands toward her? Oh, God. She shrank deeper into the pillows. She didn’t want to die.

Another swish of the wardrobe. Tina dared a small breath. The wardrobe was two steps away. So maybe he wasn’t keen on killing her. Maybe. If she was wise and obeyed.

Two soft steps, coming closer again. Oh, God. Oh, God. Her left eyelid started to jerk in nervous flutters. Did he come for her after all?

No. He went to the left, toward the wall. What on earth did he want there? Nothing but the wooden sideboard was there, nothing valuable at all. Tina frowned.

A metallic clank. Metallic? She knew that sound.

Without a conscious thought, without considering the danger, her eyes flew open, and she jerked upright again. “Don’t touch that box.” Her voice came out in a strangled gasp.

He swiveled around in one menacing movement. “I told you to sleep.”

She stuck out her chin. “That box is private. There’s nothing valuable inside.”

The thief stood still, holding the box in his gloved hand. “That’s what you would say even if it held the Koh-i-Noor, wouldn’t you?”

“What’s the Koh-i-Noor?” Her voice wobbled.

He shook his head as if surprised by her question. “The largest diamond in the world.”

“But it’s true!” Tina bit her lips. “That box is private.”

“As private as every wallet.” His sarcasm hit her.

“No!” Tina threw back her covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed.

“Where do you think you’re going?” His voice was sharp. He took a step toward her, his black figure quick like an owl diving on its prey.

She shrank back. “I want to show you what’s inside, so you’ll see for yourself it’s of no value to anybody but me.”

“That’s why you’ve locked it, I assume.” His ironic tone was light and dry, as if they discussed the quality of afternoon cookies.

“I locked it because I didn’t want it to open during the move.” Tina said with dignity.

“And you’ve never opened it though the move was four weeks ago. Sure.”

Cold fingers gripped her heart. He knew when she had moved to Seattle. Had he watched her the whole time?

He bowed his head and examined the metal box in his black-gloved hands as if she wasn’t there, but for some reason, Tina knew he had her every move under control.

She had to prove the content of the box wasn’t valuable to him. Now. “The key is in the drawer of that side board.” She folded her hands together to stop them from shaking. Her naked legs felt exposed. She jumped back into bed and pushed them beneath the warm cover.

“Thanks.”

Had he said thanks? What was this, a social call, to welcome some newcomer to the neighborhood? Tina shook her head and frowned.

He opened the drawer behind him without taking his eyes off her and started to rummage around, feeling his way.

He wouldn’t find it like that, and if he didn’t find it, he would take the whole box, and she couldn’t bear that thought. “The key is inside a small box set with pearls, in the very back of the drawer.”

His eyes seemed to assess her. “Pearls, eh?”

Gosh, he seemed to think she was rolling in riches, just because she lived in Meadow View. Maybe he didn’t know they had split up the house after the death of the previous owner? “Freshwater pearls. That box cost all of two bucks.” She made sure her voice dripped with sarcasm.

His hands stilled. For an instant, he didn’t move. Then he said, “What’s your name?”

Tina recoiled. What was he up to now? “My name?”

“Your name.” He stared at her.

How she wished she could read his face, but that mask didn’t even twitch. “Albertine Green.” Darn. He had rattled her so much, her full name had slipped out.

“Funny.”

“My name is not in the least bit funny. I wish my mother had named me Kate or Mary. You can’t imagine how many people made fun of me.” Tina caught herself. Was she discussing the disadvantages of her name with a thief? She swallowed. How embarrassing. The minute she got nervous, her tongue started to race.

“Come here, Albertine.”

“I . . . er . . . what?”

“Come here.”

Tina clutched the bedspread until her knuckles turned white. “I . . . I don’t think so.” Her throat felt parched.

He made an impatient move with his hand. “I just want you to find that key and open your precious box for me.”

“Oh.” Tina climbed out of bed with wooden movements. Out of habit, she slipped into her white pompom slippers and took two cautious steps closer until she stood next to him. He wasn’t quite as tall as she was, but he radiated strength. Maybe it was the way he stood, sure of himself, as if he burgled houses every night . . . which maybe he did.

He didn’t take his gaze off her.

Tina took a deep breath. She pulled out the drawer, grabbed the box with the pearl cover from the back, opened it, retrieved the small steel key inside, and held it out to him. Her hand trembled. “Here you are.”

For an instant, his gaze dropped to her hand, then it came back to her face. “Open the metal box, please.” He held the box out to her.

She took the box and tried to insert the tiny key, but her hands trembled so much, she couldn’t fit the little key in the lock.

“Steady.” He gripped her hand and guided it toward the sideboard. “Place the box here. Then open it. That’ll be easier.”

Tina was surprised to feel the warmth of his hands in spite of the gloves. That touch made him seem human. If only she could see his face.

At last, she managed to insert the key. The lock turned with a grating sound. “There you are.” She flipped open the box. When had she last looked inside? A year ago? Two?

On top was the ribbon that had held the roses of her wedding bouquet. She pushed it to the side and lifted out the pictures. A few dried rose leaves fluttered to the floor. Tina spread out the pictures on the sideboard and stared at them. Her life, her whole life, caught in a few snapshots. The official marriage picture, showing her long and thin like a white street lamp next to Gordon, so attractive . . . a picture of Gordon laughing, his eyes squeezed shut against the sun, just a month before his death . . . Sandra on her first horse ride, her small face serious with concentration . . . Sandra at her graduation, beaming a triumphant grin . . . Sandra tired but happy with little Sabrina in her arms. Tina’s heart tightened with love when she looked at her granddaughter.

“See?” She tried to make her voice sound light. “There’s nothing for you here. It’s just my life.”

He cleared his throat. “Hand me that box, please.”

She gave him the empty box. He examined it with experienced fingers, then passed it back. “Thank you.”

What a polite thief. Really, she was becoming quite used to him.

“Anything else I can do for you?” She dared a small smile.