her wry smile as she said, "I saw Agnes Fiorenza in the waiting room. She wants me to tell you that you're keeping her from an important luncheon."

Braden held up his free hand in a gesture of helpless disgust and let it fall. "My instructions are to let you deal with the old bat."

"What did she filch this time?"

"A Lieber belt, a Givenchy handbag, and these." He held out a pair of huge, gaudy blue crystal earrings from the costume jewelry section that would have looked bizarre on the diminutive elderly lady.

"How much unused credit does she still have?" Meredith asked, referring to the account her harassed husband had set up with the store to cover his wife's thefts in advance.

"Four hundred dollars. It won't cover it."

"I'll talk to her, but first, could I have a cup of that coffee?" Privately, Meredith was fed up with coddling the old lady while others, like the young woman out there beside her, were prosecuted to the full extent of the law. "I'm going to have the doormen ban Mrs. Fiorenza from the store after this," Meredith decided aloud, knowing full well such an action might incur the wrath of her husband. "What did the younger woman take?"

"An infant's snowsuit, mittens, and a couple of sweaters. She denies it," he said with a fatalistic shrug, handing Meredith her cup of coffee. "We've got her on videotape. Total value of the goods is about two hundred dollars."

Meredith nodded, sipping, wishing to God the bedraggled mother out there had admitted the theft. By denying it, she was forcing the store to prove it—and to prosecute her—in order to protect itself from some future lawsuit for fraudulently detaining her. "Does she have a police record?"

"My contact at the police department says no."

"Would you be willing to drop the charge if she signs a statement admitting the theft?"

"Why the hell should we?"

"For one thing, it's costly to prosecute and she has no prior record. For another, I find it highly distasteful to let Mrs. Fiorenza go away with a scold for stealing designer things she can easily pay for, and at the same time prosecute that woman for stealing warm clothes for her child."

"I'll make you a deal—you ban Fiorenza from the store and I'll let the other one off, provided she'll admit to the theft. Deal?"

"Deal," Meredith said emphatically.

"Bring in the old lady," Mark instructed the security agent.

Mrs. Fiorenza entered the room in a cloud of Joy perfume, all smiles but looking rushed. "Goodness, you took long enough, Mr. Braden."

"Mrs. Fiorenza," Meredith said, taking charge, "you've repeatedly put us all to a great deal of trouble because you insist on taking things from the counters without paying for them first."

"I know I'm troublesome at times, Meredith, but that certainly doesn't justify your using that censorious tone on me."

"Mrs. Fiorenza!" Meredith said, further irritated at being spoken to like an ill-bred child. "People go to jail—for years—for stealing things valued at less than the amount of these—" She gestured to the belt, the handbag, and the earrings. "There's a woman out there in that waiting room who took warm clothes for her baby, and she's in danger of going to jail. But you—you take trifles that you don't need."

"Good heavens, Meredith," Mrs. Fiorenza interrupted, looking appalled. "You can't think I took those earrings for myself! I'm not completely selfish, you know. I do charitable things for people too."

Confused, Meredith hesitated. "You mean you donate things you steal—like those earrings—to charity?"

"Gracious me!" she replied, her china-doll face pulled into a scandalized expression. "What worthwhile charity would accept those earrings? They're atrocious. No, indeed. I took them to give to my maid. She has awful taste. She'll love them. Although, I do think you ought to mention to whoever purchased those earrings for the store that they do nothing to enhance the image of Bancroft's! Goldblatt's, I think, might find them suitable stock, but I can't see why Bancroft's—"

"Mrs. Fiorenza," Meredith interrupted, ignoring the absurd direction the discussion had taken, "I warned you last month that if you were caught shoplifting again, I'd have to tell the doormen to bar you from the store."

"You aren't serious!"

"I am completely serious."

"I am barred from shopping at Bancroft's?"

"Yes."

"This is an outrage."

"I'm sorry."

"My husband is going to hear about this!" she said, but her voice had taken on a timid, pathetic tone.

"He'll hear about it only if you choose to tell him," Meredith said, sensing that the elderly lady's intended threat was filled with more alarm than anger.

Her head lifted proudly, but there was a catch in her voice as she said, "I have no desire to ever shop in this store again. I shall take my business to I. Magnin's. They wouldn't dream of giving an inch of counter space to those awful earrings!"

She picked up the handbag she'd put on the desk a few moments before, patted her soft white hair into place, and departed. Sagging against the wall, Meredith looked at the two men in the room and took a sip of coffee, feeling sad and uneasy—as if she'd just slapped an old woman. After all, her husband did ultimately pay for whatever she was caught stealing, so it wasn't as if Bancroft's lost money—at least, not when they caught her.

After a moment she said to Mark, "Did you notice that she seemed, well, pathetic, somehow?"

"No."

"I suppose it's for her own good," Meredith continued, studying the odd expression on his face. "Who knows, we may have taught her a lesson by handing out a punishment instead of ignoring what she does. Right?"

Braden smiled slowly, as if deeply amused, then, without replying, he picked up the phone and pressed four buttons. "Dan," he said to one of his security agents on the main floor, "Mrs. Fiorenza is on her way down. Stop her and insist that she give you the Lieber belt she has in her purse. Right," he said into the phone, grinning at Meredith's stricken expression, "the same belt you caught her stealing earlier. She just stole it from my desk."

When he hung up, Meredith shook off her stunned chagrin and glanced at her watch, her mind turning to the meeting that was scheduled for that afternoon. "I'll see you in the staff meeting later. Is your status report ready?"

"Yep. My department looks good. Losses are down by an estimated eight percent over last year."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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