Caught for christmas, p.1
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       Caught for Christmas, p.1

         Part #3.50 of Stripped series by Skye Warren
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Caught for Christmas

  Caught for Christmas

  Skye Warren

  I’ll be home for Christmas…

  The plan is simple. Break into the club and steal the money I need to save my father. The ex-military bouncer isn’t going to stop me, even if he is hot as hell.

  If only in my dreams…

  Except he has a curious knack for knowing my next step.

  And there’s something dark underneath his desire, something dangerous. If he catches me, he might not let me go.

  * * *

  CAUGHT FOR CHRISTMAS is a standalone holiday romance set in the sexy, suspenseful Stripped series.

  Books in the Stripped series

  ½. Tough Love (prequel)

  1. Love the Way You Lie

  2. Better When It Hurts

  3. Even Better

  4. Pretty When You Cry

  5. Caught for Christmas

  6. Hold You Against Me

  Praise for the Stripped series

  “Very Angsty 5 Star Read! This book is so compelling, you won’t be able to put it down, this is one of those books that you’ll want to save to re-read.”

  —Melissa, Books Can Take You There

  “There’s one thing I can say with certainty, Skye Warren never fails to deliver a heartfelt, slightly dark, I can’t stop turning the pages story. This one is no different.”

  —Di, Twisted Sisters

  “It’s dark, mysterious, sexy, and I loved every page of it! There were twists and turns that I never saw coming! I love when an author is able to keep me guessing until the very end of the book.”

  —Book Fancy Book Blog

  “The writing is so incredibly fluid, the characters so intriguing, and the story so captivating. If I could give this book more than five stars, I would. It’s as emotional as it is sexy, and beautiful as it is dark. Absolutely flawless.”

  —Sammy, Just Let Me Read

  Chapter One

  You know that feeling of unadulterated bliss when you take your bra off at the end of a long day? Yeah, multiply that by a thousand when you factor in four-inch heels and a glitter thong. It’s scratching the shit out of me underneath the trench coat I’m wearing, and it’s my own damn fault.

  I could have changed in the dressing room like the other girls, but I feel weird about it. I’m not really comfortable with other women. It’s still too foreign. My childhood wasn’t really tree houses and friendship bracelets. More like hideouts and cuffs if you were stupid enough to get caught.

  Shaking my ass for random strangers? I can do that.

  Changing clothes in the dressing room, filled with girls who will judge me and hate me? No, thanks. I’ve been to high school already. Almost twenty of them, actually, considering how much we moved around.

  So I’m taking a walk in the cool, damp night instead. The wind gusts into places that are usually dry. Tanglewood is far enough south that we don’t usually see snow, but tonight is especially cold. I’m looking forward to peeling this costume off my tired body and stepping into a hot shower.

  “How much for the night?” a bum shouts from a darkened doorway.

  “More than you got,” I call back without slowing my stride.

  “Amen,” comes his fading response.

  The streets are still pretty busy for the small morning hours, but I don’t fool myself that I’m safe.

  I spot a group of businessmen leaving a restaurant, hands clapped on shoulders, drunken hails for a flurry of cabs. The sushi restaurant is decked out in garland and lights. These guys would have no problem at all springing for a goddamn burger. They probably blew eight hundred dollars on tiny cups of sake already.

  My body needs something other than breathing room. I can hear the rumble of my stomach over the engines and city sounds from the street.

  I shove my hands into my coat pockets. Don’t ask for trouble, Bee. You’re in enough trouble already.

  There are two packs of ramen noodles on my counter and an endless supply of water from the tap, but I would really love something hot and cheesy and full of carbs. It’s the kind of meal I wouldn’t hesitate to buy myself when I started dancing, knowing I’d work off more calories than I can eat. That’s still true, but these days even a fifteen-dollar diner check is stretching the bounds of my wallet. My paycheck is generous. It’s more than enough—if I didn’t have to pay an old debt. Someone else’s debt.

  I’m two feet away from the men when my hands come out of my pockets. I feel them moving with a kind of muscle memory, bile rising in my throat at what I’m about to do. They’re just a bunch of rich bastards. They don’t give a fuck about anyone but themselves. You’ll be doing them a favor, stealing from them, bringing them down a notch.

  That’s what Maisie would tell me, but what does she know? She’s the reason I’m in this mess.

  There’s only the slightest jostle, the faintest tug of fabric. Then the wallet’s in my pocket, not his.

  He won’t even think I took it. He’ll head back into the restaurant to check the table first.

  Poor rich bastard. I’m the one who doesn’t care about anyone but myself.

  I walk for five blocks, past where I would normally turn off. When the coast looks clear, I duck into a dark alley and check my haul. I’m not going to bother with the credit cards or ID. All I want is cash, and I find two crisp hundred-dollar bills and a few random twenties and tens.


  I fold them into my bustier through the lapels of my coat and toss the wallet into the dumpster. This means dinner tonight and a few more hot, melty meals besides. They won’t scratch the surface of the larger debt, but my goals are small now. Something buttery with a hint of garlic.

  A hand lands on my shoulder.

  My heart knocks against my ribs, and I whirl to face my attacker. There are a lot of people who might have followed me in here. The guy whose wallet I stole. Or just some random asshole who wants to take what I won’t give him. I’m prepared for a fight.

  I’m not prepared for West.

  His dark skin blends into the shadows, highlighting his eyes and the white of his teeth when he speaks. “What the fuck, Bianca?”

  His shock mirrors mine. How did he follow me without me noticing? He must have kept pace from the club. I’m losing my touch, and at the worst possible time. “Can I help you?” I say coolly, stalling for time.

  He rolls his eyes and reaches for me. I have a second’s panic as his hand comes closer—is he going to hurt me? Is he going to touch me? Then his long fingers pluck the thin wad of cash from my bustier. He holds it up to the faint light. Somehow he managed to do that almost without touching my skin.

  That can’t be disappointment I feel, can it?

  “Stealing,” he says flatly.

  I hate the judgment in his tone, the censure. “What’s it to you?”

  “Why do you need this?” he counters. “I know what dancers make at the Grand. And I know where you live. You can afford better than that.”

  My eyes narrow. “How the hell do you know where I live?”

  “I’ve read the security profiles on all employees at the Grand,” he answers smoothly. Which isn’t a bad excuse, since the security company does pretty intense workups. He ruins the innocent act by adding, “I’ve also followed you home a couple times.”

  It bothers me that he followed me home, but it bothers me way more that I didn’t notice. “Looking for a little side action? I didn’t know you were into that, Boy Scout.”

  West is a bouncer at the Grand, the club where I work. The girls call him Boy Scout because he never looks at us wrong, never asks for a private dance. He’s a total gentleman, and exactly the kind of trouble I don’t need.

  “I’m worried about you,” he says, his voice strang
ely honest, the kind of earnest I almost didn’t know existed until I met him. He’s naive, right? Way too gullible. I just hate how it makes my heart tug.

  “Don’t be,” I tell him, snatching the wad of cash from his hand. “I can take care of myself.”

  He leans back just a fraction, and I get the feeling he’s inspecting me. Whatever he sees, I doubt he’s impressed. He works for Candy, who owns the Grand after Ivan gave it to her, and she has a gorgeous body. Hell, all the dancers have gorgeous bodies.

  Meanwhile I’m too tired, too thin. Months of ramen noodles will do that to a girl. I can keep dancing, though, keep moving—muscle memory and all that. The same way I stole that wallet.

  “Let me take you to dinner,” he says.

  My heart gives another kick, and I know this time it isn’t from fear. I nod toward the blue-glow horizon, skyscrapers like snow-capped mountains. It’s already morning. “A little late for that.”

  “I’m still hungry,” he says, his voice low—and seductive? I’m not sure what makes me think that, except that I’m feeling a little seduced. The wetness in dark places has nothing to do with windswept rain.

  And that makes him dangerous. “No, thanks.”

  He pauses, not seeming particularly let down. He seems thoughtful instead—as if I’m a puzzle he’s trying to figure out. “I know this great little Italian place. They stay open late as long as there’s customers. And there’s always customers.”

  Italian, huh? I bet they have lots of things that are cheesy and hot and—

  Damn it, no.

  “They bring you a basket of garlic bread to start,” he continues like a goddamn sex-phone operator, and I’m paying by the minute. And why shouldn’t I listen? I put on a show every night. “Fresh from the oven, with the butter browned around the crust. Sometimes I can get full just off the bread, but that’s a shame.”

  My mouth is completely dry. “It is?”

  “It is, because the fried calamari is the best I’ve ever had. Crispy and salty. You’ll be licking your fingers afterward. I know I will.”

  A sound escapes me, something like a moan. I’m too damn hungry to be embarrassed about it. “Then what?”

  “Well, that’s just the appetizer. For the main course there’s so much to choose from. I’ve been there so many times but I don’t think I’ve tried them all. There’s the lasagna with the filling that’s so creamy one forkful will fill you up. Then there’s the Tuscan filet, cooked to order. But I think the best dish I’ve had there—”

  My mouth isn’t dry anymore. It’s watering. I’m literally salivating at what he’s describing, and he knows it. How does he know this about me? Why does he care? The cash slips from my fingers and falls to the damp alley ground, and I don’t even care. I don’t want the cash. I don’t want to be a thief. I just want him to take me on a date to this place and never let it end.

  “Tell me,” I whisper.

  He steps close, and I realize he’s backed me up against the wall. There’s nowhere to go from here, nothing to do as his long body presses against mine. I’m tall any day of the week, and especially with my stilettos. He’s even taller, towering over me, his strong body both a shield and a cage against the wind. I’m about to combust from what he’s describing, and the nearness of his body is the strike of a match.

  His warm breath ghosts over my forehead. “The best dish is the gnocchi, each piece hand rolled, thick and stuffed with mozzarella they get straight from the farmer. There’s this brown-butter sauce that—”

  “No,” I say, pushing him away. For a second my hands don’t move him at all, his body way too strong to budge, and I panic. Old fear rises up in my throat, and my hands clench into fists.

  Then he straightens and steps away, hands up as if to calm me.

  I couldn’t move him by force, only by words. By asking him to.

  “No,” I say again, a reminder for him—and for myself. I want him too much. And I can’t have him. Not when I’m about to break through the security systems made by the company he works for. Not when I’m about to steal from his boss.

  It will be a little like stealing from West.

  Then I turn and run through the streets, my breath ragged and gasping as I sob out a denial—to myself, to him—leaving the money on the ground at his feet. He doesn’t follow me this time, and I make it back to my crappy apartment and the packets of ramen noodles.

  This is the world I’m living in now, the one I’m forced to inhabit. And all he offered me today, both the dinner and his earnest concern, are like the high heels and the glitter thong. Temporary. A means to an end. I take them off, feeling mostly relief. Relief and a little bit of regret.

  Chapter Two

  Bang. Bang. Bang.

  I wake up on a gasp, sweat drenching my body. I push back damp hair and check the clock. It’s seven o’clock in the morning, which means I’ve been sleeping for oh, about half a second.

  No rest for the wicked, I guess.

  Another round of raucous knocking at the door is joined by the angry stomps of my upstairs neighbor. “Sorry,” I mutter, pushing the comforter off my legs and standing. The cold immediately settles into my bones, the air in here probably colder than outside.

  I take a detour to the kitchen and grab a knife, because West was right. My apartment is not safe, and not only because of the location.

  “Who is it?” I yell through the heavy door. The peephole was cracked to hell when I moved in—by an angry ex-boyfriend with a baseball bat, the landlord told me.

  “It’s Maisie.” My mother.

  I use my foot to push the chair away from the door and unlock the dead bolt. A girl can’t be too careful, especially when there are mobster types who think I have their money.

  Maisie holds up a white paper bag gone translucent with grease. “I brought breakfast.”

  I step back to let her inside, my stomach growling, my whole body tight with hunger. It doesn’t want whatever dollar taco is in that bag. It wants gnocchi and garlic bread. It wants West.

  She slides two hot dogs in cardboard containers onto the counter, the meat shiny and brown. “Voila.”

  I make a face. “Are those from yesterday?”

  “Don’t get picky,” she says, sliding one over to me and taking the other for herself. “We have bigger problems to worry about.”

  Dread sinks in my empty stomach. “Jeb?”

  I’ve called my parents Maisie and Jeb for as long as I can remember. They’re more like an aunt and uncle who sweep in on a whirlwind with greasy food and cheap presents—and then leave when they’re ready to go back to their own lives. We’ve spent more Christmases apart than together. I’m eighteen now, so the state thinks I’m old enough to take care of myself. The truth is I’ve been doing that since I turned twelve.

  Maisie looks down, but not before a rare flash of emotion crosses her petite features. “They took him.”

  I stand up, shoving the stale hot dog away. “You said we had until next week.”

  Her face is pale, matching the white-blonde hair I inherited from her. “They moved up the timetable.”

  “Christ.” I run my hands over my face, trying to wipe away the exhaustion. It takes a long time to set up a con this big. Next week was already pushing it. “Why didn’t you tell me about this mess sooner? Maybe we could have worked out a payment plan or, hell, I don’t know.”

  She hesitates. “We didn’t want to scare you.”

  “You didn’t want to scare me,” I repeat dully. I’d told them I wanted to go straight. I’d told them I’d never steal from the Grand, when they’d first suggested it months ago. Then they’d showed up last week, cowed and terrified—and I’d had to help. “You need me to steal fifty thousand dollars from my dangerous, violent boss or Jeb’s fingers will get cut off. I think we’re past being scared.”

  She bites her lip, giving me the pouty look that has gotten her out of so many tight spots. Well, that and her body. Jeb and Maisie are both good-looking, and they
don’t consider anything done in pursuit of a con to be cheating. “We knew you’d get mad,” she said, her eyes going wide.

  I hate that I look so much like her. I used that same look on the customers at the Grand to milk them out of their money. It’s nothing like what she does, though. They gave me their money fair and square. Maisie only ever lies and steals.

  “Who took him, Maisie?” I know they owe money to someone, but not who. “You need to tell me.”

  They’ve been cagey about the whole thing. Of course, that’s standard operating procedure for Jeb and Maisie. Still, I didn’t expected Jeb to be abducted over this—and not so fast.

  We should have had more time.

  She sighs, her eyes falling shut. “The Caivano family.”

  “The mob? You stole money from the goddamn mafia?” God, no wonder Maisie and Jeb are terrified. The Caivano family isn’t likely to work out a payment plan.

  Her voice takes on a whining quality. “I knew you’d get angry.”

  “Oh no. Don’t try to turn this around. You stole fifty thousand dollars from the mafia. And they aren’t just going to cut off a finger, are they?”

  The fear in her eyes proves my point. “They have him, Bee.”

  “They’re going to kill him. And then they’re going to kill you. And then they’re going to kill me for being related to you, along with anyone else you’ve ever spoken to or known.”

  She shivers, and at least now I know she understands the situation. She understood it before she knocked on my door. She understood it when she stole these day-old hot dogs, but hell. This is all she knows how to do. Smile and pout and wheedle her way to getting what she wants.

  Trade up. That’s what she used to tell me. Other parents taught their kids to tell the truth, to be nice. Maisie taught me that the only thing that matters is trading up, even if you piss off some of the most dangerous men in the city.

  Even if it means betraying people who trust me.

  Her hands turn palm up, helpless. “Now you understand why we needed you to do the job.”

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