Constant, p.1
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       Constant, p.1

           Rachel Higginson
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Constant


  Table of Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter One

  Constant

  The Confidence Game

  Book One

  Rachel Higginson

  Copyright@ Rachel Higginson 2017

  This publication is protected under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws, and all rights are reserved, including resale rights: you are not allowed to give, copy, scan, distribute or sell this book to anyone else.

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  Any people or places are strictly fictional and not based on anything else, fictional or non-fictional.

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Copy Editing by Amy Donnelly of Alchemy and Words

  Cover Design by Caedus Design Co.

  Other Romances by Rachel Higginson

  The Five Stages of Falling in Love (Adult Second Chance Romance)

  Every Wrong Reason (Adult Second Chance Romance)

  Bet on Us (Bet on Love Series)

  Bet on Me (Bet on Love Series)

  The Opposite of You (Opposites Attract)

  The Difference Between Us (Opposites Attract)

  The Problem with Him (Opposites Attract) coming June, 2018

  Keep up with Rachel on her Newsletter

  Connect with Rachel on her Facebook Page

  Follow Rachel on Twitter and Instagram

  Tiffany,

  Without you I would definitely be less put together.

  And not nearly as fun.

  You’re one of my favorite people ever.

  Here’s to this constant friendship of ours, manicure

  hopping, extra-long lunches and

  online shopping for life.

  Constant

  Scheme.

  Scam.

  Con.

  Long or short, we’re talking about the same thing—the confidence game.

  A petty criminal doesn’t understand the nuances that go into creating the flawless con. Conning isn’t a last-minute misdemeanor or the consequence of a faulty moral compass. No. A true confidence game takes skill, finesse, hours of planning and plotting and finally, when your team has been assembled and the stars align and the wind blows just right, it takes perfect execution.

  The morally upright, law-abiding citizens of the world look down their noses. They assume the worst, believing that con artists are nothing more than depraved and corrupt. Social outcasts that can’t keep real jobs. But by assuming the worst, they’re ignoring the most important trait this type of person possesses—they are artists.

  A true confidence game isn’t haphazard or carried out thanks to a penchant for laziness. A real con is carefully pieced together over months. Tireless preparation and cautious consideration form the bedrock of every game. But even the most prudent con can’t plan everything. The fates throw their hand in too. Kindly or maliciously, the artist depends on them for grace.

  And in the end, the game must be played perfectly. Everything must go according to plan. Everything must fall into place and happen exactly right. The stakes are high. The risks are great.

  Yet the consequences are not enough to turn us away.

  We’ve heard the siren’s song and responded to her deathly lure. We’re not criminals. We’re artists.

  Con artists.

  At least I was once upon a time. Before different realities surfaced, forcing me to reprioritize. Maybe that’s the difference between criminals and good people—what they have to lose and how desperately they’re willing to gamble with it.

  I had been willing to gamble before. I had chanced everything often and won every single time. Until one day, the reward wasn’t worth the risk. Until I knew I had to leave the darkness behind, even if it meant giving up the game.

  Not that the game had been all that great. It was a tangled web that left me empty and shallow, wrapped up in the chains of my own making. The game was greedy, all-consuming, demanding blood for payment and my soul for insurance.

  There had been moments during that time I thought I wouldn’t survive. I stood at the precipice of death and peered over the edge. One misstep or ill-timed gust of wind and I would have tipped over, fallen down the black abyss and never resurfaced.

  Sometimes when I looked back at those moments, those infinitely dark and twisted times, I couldn’t breathe. I would feel my heart shatter all over. I would experience the tearing, crushing, ripping apart of my limbs and muscles, my tendons and veins, my heart and my mind. I would forget how to breathe.

  I would forget how to be.

  Until I remembered him.

  He was the one constant in my life that had pushed me through the darkness. He was the one constant in my life that loved me beyond everything else, beyond what I was or had been or could ever be. He wanted me to be better. He wanted to be better for me.

  The problem was he was as tangled in the madness as I was.

  I didn’t live that life anymore. I had broken free and found something safe to build a new foundation for myself. But I couldn’t remember the past without imagining his smile or his eyes, his touch. I couldn’t think about where I had been without thinking of where we were supposed to go.

  Where he was supposed to take me.

  Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you plan. Sometimes circumstances change and sometimes they’re for the better.

  But he was my constant then and he is the constant ghost that haunts me now.

  I might not be with him, but he will always be with me.

  Chapter One

  Fifteen Years Ago

  Awesome. Another back alley.

  There were only a handful of activities that regularly occurred in the darkened backstreets of downtown DC and none of them were appropriate for a ten-year-old girl.

  I knew that well, since I had witnessed my fair share of seedy behavior from this city. But that had never stopped my pops from dragging me along with him to all of his work dealings.

  “Keep up, Caro,” he snapped when his crew came into sight.

  The morning sun didn’t reach this alley, and the cool air pulled the hair to standing on my bare arms. “I should be in school, Dad. I have a science test today.”

  He glanced quickly over his shoulder at me, his expression only marginally apologetic. “I called them this morning. Told them you had strep.”

  Anger burned beneath my skin, turning my face red with frustrated emotion. I ducked my head and let my short bob fall over my cheeks.

  “Relax. It’s a free day off school. You should be thanking me. When I was a kid I woul
d have killed for my old man to call in for me. The test’ll be there tomorrow.”

  “That’s not the point. I don’t care that I’m not there. I don’t want to be here.”

  He grunted. “Yeah? Then you shouldn’t be so good at what you do.”

  I stopped walking and ground to a halt. He was blaming this on me? Me? I didn’t even know what to say. The words and arguments and furious thoughts I wanted to throw at him tangled on my dry tongue, a retort-worthy traffic jam.

  Sensing that I wasn’t following him, he turned around and walked the few steps back to me. He shot a glance to the cluster of men hovering between a rusted metal door and an oozing dumpster.

  “Come on, Caro, I’m just kidding,” he insisted, even though we both knew he was not. “This is a favor to Roman, all right? There’s this truck. The cargo is… worth our time, yeah?”

  I lifted my chin defiantly. “I thought you didn’t do this stuff anymore. I thought you got promoted.”

  His bulbous nose turned red. “I did get promoted. This is a one-time thing. They need me. And I need you.”

  My dad, Leon Valero, had recently been bumped up from high level lackey to bookie. He worked for brothers that ran an organized crime syndicate in the underbelly of Washington, DC. They weren’t the biggest outfit or the most infamous, but over the years they’d developed a reputation that held weight.

  My dad had worked for them way longer than I had been alive. Bookie was supposed to be a better job than whatever he was doing before. Bookmaker meant more respect in the organization, a bigger cut of the paycheck. He took bets on anything you could take bets on and paid out winners and beat the crap out of you if you couldn’t settle your debt.

  This promotion was supposed to mean more stability for me. He wouldn’t be gone as much. He’d make more money. He wouldn’t need me for jobs anymore.

  Promises, promises.

  “Look,” Dad coaxed. “Frankie’s here.”

  I glared over at the only other girl my age I was allowed to play with. Her long hair was somehow darker than mine, and I had always considered mine black. Hers was more like ink. Or oil. Today she hid it beneath a hat. “That’s ‘cause Frankie will do whatever it takes to prove she’s not a princess.”

  My dad ignored my comment. He knew I was right. But the problem was she was a princess. At least as far as the two of us were concerned.

  “We need you, Caro.” His voice dropped when he continued. “Frankie and Gus ain’t got half the set of balls you do. This can’t happen without you.”

  I rolled my eyes and turned to glare at the ivy clustered brick wall that lined the alley but something else captured my attention instead. Not really something, but someone. Someone new.

  I could recognize all the usual players. They were guys my dad and his bosses trusted. Most of them were grown-ups that I was supposed to call uncle. As if making them part of our already dysfunctional family somehow made them better humans. They were low-level goons at best—murderers, criminals and drug dealers at worst. But I went along with the lie. Uncle Brick. Uncle Vinny. Uncle Fat Jack. My life was a cautionary tale.

  Then there were the kids. Frankie was the only other girl I really knew. There were girls at school, but none of them paid attention to me. I was the poor, tragic outcast that cut her hair short because she didn’t have a mom around to teach her how to braid it or hell, put it in something as simple as a ponytail. Frankie and I were close for that reason. It wasn’t easy being raised by this pack of animals. But she didn’t go to my school. She went to some swanky private school that made her wear skirts and knee-high socks every day. As the orphan niece of the three brothers that ran the syndicate, she was basically royalty as far as I was concerned, and way higher up on the food chain.

  Then there were Atticus and Augustus—known as Gus—brothers and sons of the derzhatel obschaka, the bookkeeper, Ozzie Usenko. He held one of the highest positions in the bratva. Even though the brothers weren’t much older than me, they were already in training to be regular, paid members of the crew.

  Especially Atticus, even though he’d just turned sixteen. He was born for the life. I saw the hunger in his eyes every time we were allowed to be part of a job. He wanted this. He wanted to be one of the soldiers.

  Gus wasn’t as serious about it. He wasn’t really serious about anything. Atticus was scary and intense and so devoted to the brothers. Gus just didn’t want the shit beat out of him by his dad should he choose not to participate.

  It was a worthy pursuit. His dad was mean as hell.

  The syndicate didn’t enlist kids to help with big jobs often. It was usually just me or the brothers. There was less at stake if they lost one of us. It sounded harsh, but I knew it to be true. And I was the most expendable of them all. I was a minor and the daughter of a bookie, a position easily replaceable and not all that important. Which was why I made it a point to never get pinched. They might not care what happened to me, but I did.

  The brothers that ran the syndicate would always protect Frankie—the only surviving child of their beloved dead sister. The only reason she was allowed to go along for the ride was because nobody wanted to tell her no. Although they were going to have to start soon. Frankie hated her uncles. She blamed them for the death of her parents. Her mom was killed by soldiers from the Italian family competing for the same foothold the pakhan, her brothers, also known as the bosses, were. And her dad, who happened to be Italian, died at their hands in retaliation. Frankie only did this shit to punish her uncles.

  The kid against the wall was probably Gus’s age. Although it was hard to tell. Despite his height, he was half-starved and too skinny. His gangly arms and legs looked like I could snap them in half if I put enough pressure on them. But then his face looked old. Older than Gus and Atticus, maybe even older than my dad. His eyes were tired and his mouth pulled into a tight frown that was both sad and scary at the same time.

  “Who’s that?” I lifted my chin in the direction of the kid.

  Dad shook his head. “We need someone skinny for the back end.”

  “He’s bratva?”

  “Nah, he’s a stray. Jack found him digging through a dumpster and offered him a meal for his help.”

  I looked at my Uncle Jack who happened to be the size of a dumpster and wouldn’t know the first thing about living on the streets and starving. Not that I did either. For all of Dad’s shortcomings, he had at least always made sure we had a place to stay and food to eat.

  But this kid screamed street urchin. He had that cagey look about him that said way more about his current lifestyle than he wanted anyone to see. I would have bet anything that a hot meal had sounded like winning the lottery. I could imagine Uncle Jack’s promises of low risk for a big reward.

  Of course the kid would say yes.

  The problem was, I knew my Uncle Jack and there was no way he was going to waste another second on this kid once the job was done. Unless it was to tie up loose ends, which meant the kid would disappear.

  Forever.

  My stomach turned uneasily. “The Smithsonian,” I looked my father in the eye. “If I help you, you take me to the Smithsonian.”

  “Again?” I stared him down. He rolled his eyes. “Is that it?”

  “And I want to bring Frankie.”

  His frown turned into a grimace. “Yeah, well we’ll see what Roman has to say about that.”

  Her oldest uncle would say yes. After I gave Frankie the opportunity to spend the day with me and my dad, she wouldn’t care where we were going. And Roman wouldn’t be able to tell her no. He never could.

  “So you’re in?”

  It pained me to agree to today’s activities, but I did. I didn’t really have a choice anyway. “What’s the job?”

  “The Screaming Eagle,” he explained. “The mark is that electronics store next to the 7-Eleven. They got a big truck of TVs coming in.”

  My lips parted and I breathed a slow, steady exhale of relief. As far as jobs went, the Sc
reaming Eagle was low risk, little more than normal kid stuff. The most danger I would see was having my ass chewed by the electronics store manager.

  But I couldn’t let my dad know that. If he even got a whiff of my relief, he wouldn’t hesitate to force me into more if this crap.

  Instead I asked, “It takes all of us to pull off The Screaming Eagle?”

  He made a sound in the back of his throat. “Lest I insult your ego, it will only be you, Gus and Frankie on the inside. Atticus is here to drive the truck.”

  “And the new kid?”

  Dad glanced at him one more time. “Don’t worry about the new kid.”

  I looked at Frankie so I could check out the new kid one more time without being noticed. If Dad didn’t want me to worry about him, the kid must have a super bad part today. Or for after the robbery.

  Leon was many things, but he always shot shit straight with me.

  The kid in question stared down at his sneakers that were full of holes. His dark hair was long and shaggy over his ears, and his skin had that dull quality that happened when you didn’t eat healthy food. He’d shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, but his thumbs stuck out revealing dirty fingernails and grimy fingers.

  “What’s the hold up, Valero?” Vinnie called from the back of the alley.

  My dad didn’t even spare him a glance, just shouted over his shoulder. “Just a minute.” He turned to face me. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready to go. You good with everything else?”

  I wasn’t good with any of it, but I nodded anyway.

  Dad left me to go talk to the guys. To be honest, what I did was a small part of the job. I created a distraction by causing a scene—classic misdirection. While everyone’s eyes were on me, the rest of the guys slipped inside and took what they wanted.

  It sounded simple. But it wasn’t. There was finesse to it, skill. Frankie and Gus could make a lot of noise, but rarely could they capture an entire store’s attention for the necessary amount of time. The real reason Dad kept me out of school today was because I was the best damn liar he’d ever met.

 

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