The Ideal Cut
Clayton Gaumont surveyed the ballroom with satisfaction. The party was in full swing, the guests were on their way to drunk, and the hostess, heiress Sylvia Docker, was tied up (figuratively) with her social obligations. Everyone seemed to want a moment of the poor woman’s time, and already Clayton could see the strain on her face. She was not the sort of wealthy socialite that thrived on attention, but that was to Clayton’s advantage. He’d gotten a good look at the necklace she was wearing when they’d been introduced, and that told him everything and more about what was still sitting in the vault upstairs. If she wore that in public, what she kept hidden away had to be spectacular.
Straightening his tie, Clayton started to move away from the fruit end of the massive buffet table. Time to work the room a little, blend in, maybe rub elbows with a few bigwigs and give himself an alibi. He had a few hours to go until he could slip away and make good on his employer’s challenge; until then, he’d have to entertain himself.
He’d only taken two steps, however, when he collided shoulder-to-shoulder with a man holding a champagne flute in one hand. They both took a step back, stared at one another, and Clayton couldn’t help but be impressed at what he saw.
“Terribly sorry,” the man said, not sounding the least bit apologetic. He was taller than Clayton― but that wasn’t very difficult, if you stood taller than five foot six― with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, accentuated by the cut of his bespoke tux. He was brown-haired and brown-eyed with a sharp jaw and strong Roman nose, and he was looking Clayton up and down with undisguised interest, his gaze lingering somewhere below Clayton’s belt, and then again on Clayton’s throat. Silver cufflinks gleamed at the stranger’s wrists, and his red bow tie caught the eye as an accent against all that black and white. There was a faint shadow of stubble on the stranger’s chin and upper lip, as though even shaving right before an event couldn’t subdue his testosterone-fueled manliness.
Clayton shifted forward on his toes, turning the charm up a notch. “My fault,” he said, smoothing down his own slightly unruly mop of curly hair, “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“No harm done,” the man said with a smile, and moved the champagne flute to his left hand in order to extend his right. “Theo Edgeworth.”
“Jeff Cagney,” Clayton said, taking Theo’s hand and squeezing it, rather than shaking it. “Which charity are you with?”
“Lawyers Against Climate Change,” Theo said, letting his touch linger. His hands were warm and dry, and his grip had the strength of a man who worked with his hands. Curious. “Sylvia has been very good to us this year.”
“That’s excellent.” Rich people. Clayton wondered if they ever managed to make friends at even a fraction of the rate they gave away money.
“What about you?” Theo asked. He had angled his body a little, inadvertently blocking Clayton’s way to the door, and to push past him at this point would be downright rude. Besides, Clayton didn’t really mind the distraction. He let himself be drawn into Theo’s space, plucking a champagne glass off a passing tray, and took a sip.
“Panda Population Revitalization,” he said. “I’m on the board.”
Theo smirked, and Clayton knew suddenly that he’d made a blunder. Damn it! Who actually cared about the panda population? This guy?
“Really?” Theo asked. “I don’t remember seeing your name on the program.”
Clayton looked down at his feet, and then back up, sheepish. “You got me. I’m not on the board. I work in Annual Giving.”
Theo laughed, showing straight, white teeth, and Clayton felt a little thrill run down his spine. Theo had a gorgeous, rich laugh, and Clayton was already imagining what it would be like to kiss that mouth, have those lips on his skin. Then Theo licked his lips― deliberately? Clayton couldn’t tell― and Clayton was starting to feel a little light-headed. His stomach was warm with arousal, his heart rate already picking up. He’d been so busy lately, traveling, getting out of the way, that sex had been put on the back burner. Now his body was reminding him how long it had been.
He couldn’t afford to be distracted tonight. Regardless of how much interest Theo was telegraphing, Clayton wasn’t going to let himself do anything more than get this dude’s phone number. He could fuck him stupid tomorrow night. Tonight he had a job to do.
“I could use some air,” Theo said, leaning across Clayton to put his champagne glass down on the table behind him. He touched Clayton’s elbow lightly on the way back up, and Clayton swore he could feel it straight down his spine into his abdomen. “How about you, Jeff from Annual Giving?”
“Yeah, that sounds great,” Clayton said, before he could stop himself. His face was hot. He really could do with getting out of the suddenly stifling ballroom.
Theo flashed him another smile, coy and closed-mouthed this time, and took Clayton’s hand. Clayton let Theo pull him through the crowd, skirting around the edge of the dance floor, and toward the French doors that opened out onto the veranda.
Clayton snuck a peek at his watch. It was eleven thirty, and this party was guaranteed to go on until at least three in the morning. Clayton’s best window of opportunity would open up just after midnight, when the party would be at its height and sneaking away would not be looked upon with suspicion. He could be meeting someone for more intimate conversation; who would know?
Of course, he was being drawn into intimate conversation right now, as Theo squeezed between two knots of people and they emerged onto the veranda with a mutual sigh of relief. The late spring night was not yet heavy with the humidity of summer, and Clayton took a deep, grateful breath.
There was another bar out on the veranda, and Theo drew Clayton in that direction past a few other couples seeking respite from the crush in the ballroom.
“Gin and tonic,” Theo said to the bartender, and then to Clayton, “You?”
“Whiskey,” Clayton said, “neat.” One drink wouldn’t hit him very hard. Even after the champagne, he had enough tolerance to be able to pull it off. Normally he didn’t drink on the job, but turning it down would draw attention to him, and that was the last thing he wanted.
Drinks in hand, they drifted towards the edge of the veranda where the low stone wall separated the guests from the carefully manicured garden beyond. Its topiary and rose beds were lit by the full moon, but their details were lost beyond the brightness spilling out of the windows from the party. Clayton gazed in that direction nonetheless. Theo leaned against the stone wall and looked upwards.
“Isn’t that magnificent?” Theo said.
Clayton looked. The moon hanging just above the roof of the house had a silvery sheen and a faint ring of cloud around it. Clayton rested his elbows on the wall beside Theo. His glass was cool in his hands.
“Sometimes when I think the work I do is useless or extravagant,” Theo said, “I take a week off and hike to the remotest place I can get, and remember how fragile and amazing nature is.”
Oof, Clayton thought. A real activist. Well, he was going to have to play the Panda sob story card if he wanted to either get laid or get away easy.
“I know what you mean,” Clayton said, taking another sip of whiskey and lying through his teeth. “Working in an office doesn’t feel meaningful, I mean, all I do is answer phones all day and convince people to write checks. But I got to go on a trip once to China that the company sponsored and hold a baby panda.” Theo was looking at him with interest, as if he expected the story to get really exciting. “It was soft,” Clayton said, wondering if anyone actually let American tourists hold baby pandas. “I just think, you know, if we can do something to preserve the world we live in, we should do it.”
Theo’s brown eyes were wide and earnest as he said, “I absolutely agree. There’s nothing worse than standing idly by when things are going wrong around you and you have the power to change them.”
“How long have you been with LACC?” Clayton asked.
“Almost four years,” Theo said. “I went to law school right after college, and then spent three years working as an associate for a firm in New York, but something about it just felt wrong. I wanted to do good for the world, and here I was doing paperwork for corporate cases that were all about money. So I switched jobs, got into non-profits, and became a lawyer for a lawyer’s activist group.” He grinned. “It suits me, I guess.”
“I guess it does,” Clayton said. Something about Theo’s story felt off, but he wasn’t sure what. Being a consummate liar himself, he usually knew when people weren’t giving it to him straight. “Where did you go to law school?” he asked.
“Oh yeah? My sister-in-law’s cousin went to Harvard. You graduated, what, six, seven years ago? Do you know Sarah Baker?”
Theo shrugged and shook his head. “The name doesn’t sound familiar. Sorry. She must not have been in my section.”
“Sure, of course,” Clayton said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to play the do-you-know game with you.” He laughed, trying to sound embarrassed. “That’s not what you brought me outside for.” Maybe not, but Theo was definitely lying. He did it easily, without a pause, which made Clayton twice as suspicious. It also made him twice as interested in getting under this guy’s skin (or into his pants, whichever came first). Why was he lying? Who was he, really?
“It’s okay,” Theo said, angling closer to Clayton. “I did have an ulterior motive.” The coy smile came back, and Clayton flushed. “I hope I’m not being too forward.”
“No, no,” Clayton said quickly. “Definitely not.” He could feel the warmth of Theo’s body and he leaned into it. “In fact, I like that in a guy… willing to take a risk.”
Theo laughed and his free hand brushed against the back of Clayton’s. Then he turned his hand over and traced his fingers down the heel of Clayton’s hand toward the tip of his thumb. Clayton felt it like a shock all the way through his body, just that gentle pressure of Theo’s fingertips. He swallowed hard. Theo leaned closer and dropped his voice, speaking close enough to Clayton’s ear that his soft lips brushed the shell. “I don’t think you’re much of a risk,” he said.
Clayton shivered, blushed, and then scolded himself internally. This kind of behavior was going to get him noticed. He should have scooted past Theo when they first collided, made his apologies, and gotten out of there. Instead, he’d been sucked in by that appraising look and now he was wasting precious time. He needed to disappear.
He turned his head to make an excuse to Theo, say something about getting back inside, maybe hitting the head before the dancing really got wild, or maybe spilling his drink and going back for another one, but Theo was so close that when he did turn, Theo met him in the middle, pressing their lips together softly.
Clayton pulled back, surprised, and Theo raised an eyebrow at him. “Wrong impression?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” Clayton said. “Just, timing.”
“It was good, wasn’t it?”
Clayton snorted. “It was pretty good.” He could feel Theo’s breath against his lips, smell the warm, slightly spicy smell of his cologne; like leather, or campfire smoke, with a hint of cinnamon. The rational part of his brain not currently soaking in sex hormones reminded him that: A, they were in public and B, Clayton was on a goddamn mission. The rest of his brain just wanted to cozy up to this guy and get more familiar with that smell.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, gentlemen,” a woman’s voice said from a polite distance, “but Miss Docker is going to give her toast.”
Clayton was prepared to let Miss Docker give her toast to an empty room, if it meant he could stay right here for another five minutes, staring at Theo Edgeworth, but Theo was already standing up straight and finishing his drink. He tipped the empty glass at Clayton, standing there with his dick half-hard in his pants, and said, “I’m just going to run to the john.”
“Right,” Clayton said, mentally shaking himself. What was wrong with him? “I’m sure we’ll find each other.”
“I’m sure we will,” Theo replied, and brushed another kiss across Clayton’s lips. Then he turned away, and was gone in the crush of the party.
Clayton took a moment to gather his composure back up from where he’d spilled it all over the flagstones, and headed in after him. He needed a minute to recover. What had just happened? Theo was a liar, and a damn good one, but everything about him had raised Clayton’s hackles (among other things). Theo didn’t seem like one of the beef-heads Sylvia Docker had employed as her bodyguards, nor did he really have the air of an undercover guy, but Clayton had to be on his toes.
Briefly, he reconsidered even going after the diamond. It was only a ten-million-dollar job, and normally his dignity as a thief didn’t allow for him to be a burglar for hire, but this was small potatoes compared to the job he was basically auditioning for right now. The employer, one Camilla Hendricks, had a lead on a shipment of blood diamonds from South Africa. Clayton wouldn’t have touched it with a ten foot pole if she hadn’t sworn they were going to get to them before their “legitimate” buyer had paid the paramilitary group supplying them, but even so. Having to prove himself before being contracted to lift a shitload of diamonds worth a shitload of money was questionable. But the cut… well. The cut Clayton would take as the organizer of the heist was enough to fund a retirement that could start the very next day, if he ever thought he would bother to retire.
But, no, Camilla had given him all the materials he’d needed to prep for the job: blueprints of the house, access to the caterers, a trial run of the safe. He could be in and out in twenty minutes. Clayton was here and he was doing the job.
With Sylvia giving her toast, and everyone occupied and most of them good and drunk, the upstairs would be empty. Clayton worked his way slowly around the edge of the room, giving the buffet a casual glance. By the time Sylvia was actually at the microphone, to much applause, Clayton had slipped out the other side of the ballroom, into the hall.
There were two guys in five hundred-dollar suits standing on the main staircase. They were both also wearing earpieces that snaked down the backs of their collars, which confirmed their status as party security. Clayton lingered beside a column, watching them through narrowed eyes. They were supposed to be on the move, walking the halls, not stationary. He needed to get up those stairs. Sylvia’s toast wouldn’t go on much longer, and then there would be general revelry again.
Clayton took a quick step backwards as one of the men glanced his way. Invisible behind the column, he also couldn’t see whether they were still there. Peeking out sideways like a cartoon burglar wasn’t really his style. He slowed his breathing and waited for a count of five, and then stepped out again.
The two men were gone, and the hall was empty. Clayton darted for the stairs and hurried up them. Time was a-wasting, and Clayton had to get in, crack the safe, and get out again before security made another sweep of the second floor. The clock was ticking.