Diamond and Chase Book One
“Keep your head down,” James roared as he latched his large hand on the back of my head and shoved it forward.
Just as he did, a bullet zipped past our open convertible.
I screamed. Of course I fucking screamed – they were shooting at us. I had not signed up for this when I’d come to this stupid apparently sleepy English hamlet to further my Ph.D. studies.
Keeping one hand on his leather-covered steering wheel, he grabbed a massive silver handgun from his lap. As our car sped down the narrow tree-lined country road, he fired off blind shots behind him.
I kept my dear, beloved head huddled between my knees, my hands clasped over my coiffed hair, my fingers as stiff as sticks of steel.
I shook all over. All friggin’ over. I felt like somebody had turned me into one of those shuddering Elvis dolls that sits on your dashboard.
This wasn’t fun anymore; this wasn’t goddamn fun anymore.
This good-looking, smooth prick had tricked me. And the next chance I got, I was going to wring his neck.
At first, I’ll admit freely that this world of treasure and intrigue had felt like a game. And hey, I’m always the first to admit that I love playing.
But this wasn’t frigging playing anymore.
Now bullets riddled the once pristine paintwork of this Mercedes convertible.
“It’ll be alright,” James said as he twisted around and fired off several more shots.
Like hell it would be alright. If by alright he meant being chased through the winding country roads of the English counties by dickheads in fast cars with guns, then sure, this was alright.
No, wait. This was freaking hell, and James was a bastard for getting me into this.
But here I was.
Right in the thick of it.
Our car hit a pothole. We were going so fast we began to fishtail. James had to drop his gun as he crammed both hands on the steering wheel and tried to regain control of the car. Shoulders locked with tension, he twisted the car expertly and pulled it out of a skid.
His gun clattered off his lap and landed down beside me.
“Hand me the Magnum. Audrey, hand me the Magnum,” he said clearly, speaking to me in the sanctimonious, careful tone you’d use on a flustered, hysterical woman.
But you know what? I, Audrey Diamond, was not a frigging hysterical woman and never would be.
A pissed off woman?
That was a heck of a lot closer to the mark.
Rather than hand him the Magnum, I jerked my head to the side, twisted around in the seat, and brought the gun up. We were driving so damn fast that the sweet Alice band with the red polka dots and bow that I’d bought off eBay for a steal was wrenched out of my hair and lost to the wind.
I started firing.
“Jesus Christ, Audrey, get your head down. Give me the gun,” James – A.K.A. Mr. Smooth Prick – demanded.
I kept firing.
Because like hell was I going to wait around for him to save me. He might have inadvertently gotten me into this ridiculous world, but I was going to pull myself out.
Several weeks earlier
“Come on, you’ve got to be kidding – you can’t really be going,” Katie pointed out, her South London accent echoing down the line.
I locked my phone close to my ear with my shoulder as I grabbed up my vintage bags. The ones with the little faded pictures of stamps and maps. The ones I’d embellished for half an hour with polished brass buckles and buttons. “Well, I always say I’m full of surprises.”
“No, you don’t,” she said blankly, “And that’s a total bloody lie – you’re not full of surprises. Audrey, you’re full of lip, granted. But you’re also a gorgeous, glitzy city girl. You hate the countryside. And you realize that’s where you’re going, right? There’ll be trees. Worse than that, cows.”
I snorted. You know, the kind of rattling snort that makes your nostrils shake around like flags in the wind. “They’re not going to eat me, you numbskull. And I don’t exactly hate the countryside that much. I’m an outdoorsy type,” I said with the kind of muffled cough that would leave nobody doubting that I was lying out of my ass.
Katie snorted. “I’m giving you a week. No, two days.”
“Sorry?” I made it out my front door and kicked it closed with my foot. Putting the bags down, I turned and locked it, stowing the keys back in my pocket.
“You’ll be back in two days. No, scratch that – a day. You’ve got a day before you get either so bored you die or so homesick for the city they have to medevac you out.”
“You know, I’m a heck of a lot more adventurous than you give me credit for,” I said as I reached my old, shitty hatchback, wrenched open the hatch door, and carefully placed my vintage bags inside.
“Sweetie, I know you’re adventurous. When it comes to your mouth, that is.”
I now snorted so loudly it was a surprise half of London didn’t lean out of their windows to tell me to shut the hell up. “I’m sorry? What the hell does that mean?”
“It means exactly what you just did. Audrey, honey, I love you to bits. But you are one of the mouthiest people I have ever met.”
I conceded her point with a shrug, even though she couldn’t see it.
“But while you’d be able to go toe-to-toe with anyone capable of speech, you are not adventurous, babe. Not the kind of adventurous they need in the country, anyway.”
I shook my head, squeezing my eyes closed as I tried to comprehend exactly what crap my best friend was saying. “What exactly do you think happens in the countryside, Katie? It’s not Indiana Jones. There aren’t boulders rolling past on the narrow winding roads, ready to squish you flat. There aren’t marauding tigers or assassins. There’s grass, basically, and yeah, a couple of cows. But I can guarantee you I have never screamed at a cow in my whole life.”
“You won’t last a day,” Katie defaulted to saying.
“You’re right – I’ll last two whole months until I get this damn Ph.D. research sorted. You need to give me credit, Katie – I’m surprising when I want to be.”
Katie laughed. It only had a slightly mean edge to it. “Okay, granted, you can be very surprising when you want to be. But cows aside, it’s going to be so frigging boring. You’re going to go out of your tiny mind.”
I reached forward, jammed the keys into the ignition, and shot the rear vision mirror a sassy look, even though I doubted it would be able to transmit said sassy look all the way to Katie. “Babe, I’m very good at finding things to amuse me.”
This elicited a rattling snort. “Whatever. Just have fun, okay? And call me if you need anything.”
“Will do, sweetie. I’ll check in when I get to my accommodation.”
With that, I turned off the phone, chucked it on the seat beside me, and pulled out from the curb.
As I drove, I snarled to myself. Katie was wrong. I was a very adventurous girl, possibly some would say too adventurous. Because little old me? Oh, little old me never knew when to shut up. And that particular skill always had the nasty habit of getting me into trouble.
And little did I know that as I hooked a right around a roundabout, I was headed right into the very heart of trouble itself.
“You’ve got to be kidding, right? You’re not serious? You’ve finally found the postcards?” I leaned forward, the arms of my suit catching against the turned metal of the table.
“Do you think I would joke about something like this? Do you know how long it’s taken me to track this down?”
“A million frigging years for all I care. Just say it – say you’re serious.”
There was a whistle over the line as Sandy took a breath. “I’m serious. I know where the postcards are. Or at least, where they should be.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I leaned even further forward, clamping the phone against my ear as if I were trying to push it through my damn skull. I couldn’t help it. Who would be able to help it? These postcards had only been the bane of my life for the past four months.
“What do you think it means? Your dear brother might already have them.”
I’d been halfway through bringing up a hand, locking it on my designer tie, and loosening it from around my neck. I stopped. Of course I fucking stopped. One mention of my dear brother, and you could pause me like a still frame.
“I don’t think he knows about it. Yet. So you’ve got time. I suggest you book your leave from Lloyd’s and you pack your bags.”
“To where, exactly?” I asked as I shoved up from the table, the damn uneven metal snagging the cuff of my 10,000-pound suit.
I clenched my teeth and swore under my breath, plucking at the loose thread as I anchored the phone against my ear with my shoulder.
“The quiet, drowsy vale of Huddlestone.”
I stopped. Frozen hard on the spot. “… What?”
“Yeah, it’s time to go back home.”
I swallowed, a ball of frigging frustration forming in my throat. “I looked through that house, Sandy – I fricking pulled it apart piece-by-piece. They weren’t there.”
“I know. I know. But it was never in his house. Not that one, at least.”
I paled. “What?”
“Turns out your dad had a cottage up in the hills. Kept it from everyone.”
I was a cold, efficient bastard of a man – or at least that’s what I liked to think. But right now my stomach sank so quickly I had to utilize all my muscular control not to throw my phone off the roof.
So my father had lied to me again?
Sandy paused. “Keep your cool, mate. Think about what’s at the end of the tunnel. You want those postcards, Chase, and now you can finally get them.”
“How? Where the hell is this cottage? And are you sure no one else knew about it? And what exactly did father do with it? Why wasn’t it in his will?”
“Because he gifted it to a man named Jeffrey Holmes before he died.”
Again, I froze. I’d been halfway through pulling my reflective shades from my pocket and cramming them on my face. Now I paused, the glasses half on as I stared across the rooftop café at the London skyline beyond.
I tightened the knuckles of one hand.
“You’ve gone all silent. You know Jeffrey, then?”
“Yes, yes, I do,” I said in a falsely controlled tone. “How do we know he hasn’t found the postcards?”
“Because he’s still alive. His door hasn’t been kicked down by your brother or your other enemies. So I’m taking it on face value that he hasn’t found a thing.”
It wasn’t a watertight argument, but it would do. I knew just the kind of assholes after these postcards – me included. And if Jeffrey was still here, then it was a safe bet that he hadn’t found a thing.
I turned hard on my calf-leather shoes, and I made my way off the rooftop café, sure to check out the socialite to my left as she made eyes my way. Yes, despite finding out my father had just kept a secret cottage from me my whole life, I still found the time to check her out.
I let my glasses slip a few centimeters down my nose, and I winked at her. That’s right. It’s not recommended for most men, but me? I could get away with it.
There was little I couldn’t get away with.
As the socialite sashayed past, her skirt short enough to qualify as a handkerchief, I returned my attention to Sandy. “So where exactly is this cottage?” As soon as I was past her, I dropped the act and went right back to being unreasonably pissed off and raw.
“Calm down, Princess Chase. I’ll get it by the time you arrive. I’ll text it to you soon.”
“You’d better. I want to be in and out of Huddlestone as quickly as I can.”
“Yeah, I doubt that’s going to happen. Your father made a career out of hiding valuable shit in obscure locations. You think the postcards are going to be any different?”
“It’ll take a day. Two, max,” I stated flatly. I hung up and walked to my open-top Mercedes.
My stay in Huddlestone would be short. I’d make sure it was. And I, James Chase, had a history of getting exactly what I wanted.
I was spent. By the time I arrived in the sleepy hamlet of Huddlestone, I was so damn weary, I felt like I needed a pair of crowbars to open my eyelids.
But hey, I was here, right? That meant I was halfway through finishing this damn Ph.D. project, right?
I knew for a fact this thing was going to drag. Don’t ask me why, but that was just the impression I got as I yanked the back door to my car open, pulled out my bags, checked my phone once more, and walked toward the sweet little cottage opposite me.
I reached the door, knocked, and it took all of about two seconds until the cheeriest face I’d ever seen answered. The old sweet dear was in her early 70s, had purple rinse curls that could probably be seen from outer space, and was wearing an apron with a giant smiley face on it.
The sarcastic part of me wanted to laugh; the polite part that realized I’d be living with this woman for the next two months smoothed a smile over my face. “Hi there, you must be Ms. Smith. I’m Audrey Diamond,” I said as I extended a hand.
I had my handbag and all my luggage under my arms, but that didn’t matter. I was a strong girl.
“Oh, Audrey, I was wondering when you would arrive. I hope the drive wasn’t too arduous.”
I kept that smile locked on my face. Arduous, no. Boring, yes. And possibly a little illuminating. For, despite how strenuously I’d fought Katie on the fact that I wouldn’t lose my mind in this little, boring country hamlet, I was starting to wonder if maybe I would.
“Come in. I’ve set dinner for you. I hope it will be enough, though,” Ms. Smith said as she turned around and fobbed me forward with a wave of her hand. As she did? As she did I swear her gaze locked on my figure.
Ah yes, my figure. My figure which was currently adorned in polka dots with a sweet 50s dress with one of those cute flares at the hip. My figure with its round hello-boys bust which I often played to its maximum worth. My beautiful size 16 figure. But my size 16 figure nonetheless. While I loved my size and the assets it gave me, not everyone else in this fat-obsessed world agreed with my point of view.
But before I could accuse the apparently sweet old Ms. Smith of being one of my detractors, she gestured me toward the kitchen. “We have a guest who popped in, you see. A surprise visit from Mr. Holmes.”
I took it she wasn’t referring to Sherlock Holmes. As that would be surprising indeed. And when I made my way around the tight corner into the kitchen, I was distinctly disappointed not to see a cape, a magnifying glass, and an opium den. What I got was an older man in a tweed jacket sitting at the table and smiling at me politely. “The name’s Jeffrey Holmes. I thought I’d come around and introduce myself so you can get to work immediately.”
I didn’t have to search my memory to know who this guy was; he was the entire reason I was here. I shoved a hand out, grabbed his, and shook it as a wide smile spread my red lips. “It’s so great to meet you. And thank you so much for giving me this opportunity,” I said effusively. It was Jeffrey Holmes, after all, who’d organized for me to catalog the Grimsby collection. And you didn’t get opportunities like this every other day. My dream was to become a museum curator, and this was a step in the right direction.
“Sit down. Sit down.” Ms. Smith shooed me toward a chair.
I sat down and faced Jeffrey.
And Jeffrey? He smiled. “I think your stay in Huddlestone will be worthwhile, Miss Diamond. In fact, I guarantee it.”
So here I was, back in Huddleston.
I’d been born here, grown up here, and left the second I’d had the chance. The last time I’d returned was for my father’s funeral and the week and a half I’d spent tearing his house to shreds to look for the postcards.
Oh, Huddleston. Such happy memories.
As I pulled up to the curb, turned off the engine, got out, and tipped my head back, I surveyed the town in the dying light of dusk.
I hated being back here. So I was going to get this done as fast as I sodding could.
Curling my keys around my finger, I strode toward my house. Yep, that’s right – I still had a house here. Call it tax avoidance or the fact I couldn’t quite part with it. For while my dear late father had given my brother everything else, he’d given me the house.
I stopped in front of it, casting my gaze to the left-and-right as I saw the mangled garden. Though once upon a time it’d been perfectly manicured, those times were long gone.
Shoving hard past the fence, I accidentally broke one of the musty white pickets. Rather than try to prop it back up, I chucked it into the long, jungle-like lawn.
“Get it done, and get out,” I said to myself under my breath. I had absolutely no intention of hanging around this village, for more reasons than one. I wanted to get back to London – had to get back to my job as an actuary for Lloyd’s. Or a man of risk as my friends liked to put it. Which was a double entendre if ever I’d heard one. Not only did I calculate risks for other people, but I took them for myself. From my love life to what I chose to do in my free time, I was a man who played it right up to the edge.
Reaching the front door, I selected the house key, jammed it into the lock, and shoved it open.
Instantly I was met with the musty scent of a house that hadn’t been looked after in yonks. I hadn’t set foot inside this thing for months. And I was only doing so now reluctantly. Though I’d been telling myself that I’d be able to get into Huddleston and get out, rationally speaking, that wasn’t going to happen. If I took off my idiot hat for half a second and put on my actuary hat, I fancied I could calculate just how long it would take to track down my dad’s old postcards. A week or two, nothing less.
I swore to myself under my breath as I reached a hand out and pressed my fingers over the dust by the door. I tried the light switch experimentally and wasn’t at all surprised when the lighting didn’t come on. I was a good boy, and I paid my council rates and electricity, but houses do funny things when they’re not lived in for four months. A fuse had probably blown, or one of the massive unkempt trees in the yard had probably taken out the power.
“Great,” I muttered to myself as I shunted my hands even harder into my pockets. Before I could head around back to test out my theory, I stopped in front of the hall mirror. There was a great wad of spider webs over it, and I reached up a hand, brushing them away, careful not to let them touch the postcard that was hooked in the right corner of the mirror.
Though I wasn’t a sentimental man and never would be, I couldn’t stop myself from pulling up a hand and letting my fingers trail over the curled edge of the postcard.
This was it – this postcard was the last one my father had ever written to me before he’d dropped off the face of the earth.
I reached up a hand, unhooked it from the mirror, turned it over, and looked at the six words that were written across the back.
I still remembered when I’d received this postcard back in London. When it had come in the mail, I’d turned it over, read the back, and tossed it in the bin. It was only later that day when I found out he’d died that I’d fished it out and then sat there for the rest of the night staring at it.
Six little words. Have a better life than me.
That’s it. No, “I love you, son.” No, “so sorry for your shitty childhood and the fact I was never around and doted on your brother instead.” No acknowledgment. Just a crappy goodbye.
Though a part of me wanted to clench my hand in tear this postcard in half, I clenched my teeth instead and shoved it back into the corner of the mirror. Then I turned around, expensive shoes twisting through the carpet pile as I made my way toward the kitchen.
The house was nice by common standards, but I preferred modern, clean lines. I also preferred something that didn’t creak in the wind and something that had no greenery whatsoever. I, James Chase, did not like to care for things.
Still, it was old, it was a bungalow, it was set back on two acres of land from the main shopping strip, and it was worth at least a million pounds. But would I sell it? … I’d threatened to sell it so many times, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.
As I made my way toward the kitchen and the back door that would lead out into the generous yard, my phone pinged.
It was Sandy. He almost had the address of my father’s secret cottage. Almost.
Tomorrow, he’d get it. And tomorrow? It would be time to pay my respects to my father once and for all.
“I don’t know much about this Grimsby fellow,” I commented as I sat in the passenger seat of Jeffrey Holmes’ car. I stared steadfastly out of the window, not because I was trying to ignore the fellow, but because these were some seriously winding roads. They were also so damn wooded it felt like I was in the Lord of the Rings or something. Lord of the Rings, that is, if it included tiny beaten up Volkswagens from the 70s.
Jeffrey’s car was doing its damn best to climb the hill, but the exact sound it was making was like a penguin who’d been asked to drag a continent.
“There’s not that much to say,” Jeffrey said, and excuse me if his tone went a little… funny. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, because I had to use most of my concentration to stare out the window and not throw up.
But there was… something.
Katie often accused me of making up stories, trying to make the world a more interesting place than it was. Dear Katie was wrong. The world, you see, was interesting. It was just most people never had the requisite attention to figure that out. There were little mysteries and intrigues going on all around you; you just had to look for them.
Other friends often accused me of being a busybody. Me? I thought of myself as more of a detective. If someone waved a clue in front of my face, I jolly well tracked it down. That’s what you’re meant to do with clues, right?
Though I had to clamp a hand on my stomach in the hopes it would keep my guts firmly where they were meant to be, I eventually found the strength to turn around and face Jeffrey.
It was just soon enough to see a confusing, wistful kind of look in his eyes. His eyebrows were all crumpled, there was the finest slick of sweat on his head, and his hands didn’t quite clutch the steering wheel right.
But then he smoothed a smile over his face and turned to me. “I hope these awful winding roads aren’t giving you trouble, Miss Diamond?”
I hated the term Miss. Why did all men get to be Mr. despite their marital status, but women had to be divided into single and taken? I much preferred Ms. I also liked saying it – it sounded like I had a bee trapped in my mouth whenever I let the s drag on too long.
I held my tongue and didn’t jump down Jeffrey’s throat for the inappropriate honorific. Instead, I glanced back at the road. “This Grimsby cottage must be a fair way out of town. I haven’t seen a single driveway off this shitty little road,” I commented. Then I hiccupped as I realized I’d sworn in front of this old chap. While I very rarely filtered my mouth at home, I had to be on Jeffrey’s good side – I owed him my Ph.D. project.
I pressed a hand over my mouth and kind of curtsied on the spot despite the fact I was crammed into the tiny seat of this equally tiny car. “Sorry. Ah, I meant, unkempt road,” I said after a pause, wincing at the fact I’d described the road like an unbrushed head of hair.
Jeffrey smiled. “It is a shitty road. Trust me on that. And the reason is no one really uses it. It heads up to Hammersmith Hill – which once upon a time was a grand picnicking area. But unfortunately it’s become overgrown. Apart from that, it only leads to Grimsby’s house. Hence nobody uses it. And if nobody uses it—”
“The Council doesn’t repair it. Got it. But who was this Grimsby, anyway?” I said after a polite pause, turning the conversation back around to what I really needed to know. It wasn’t just my Ph.D. topic – it was for plain interest’s sake. Because I swore whenever anybody mentioned this Grimsby, they got a funny look in their eyes.
And, hello, it happened again. As if on cue, on the word Grimsby, Jeffrey’s knuckles tightened ever so slightly around the steering wheel.
“A friend of mine,” he said in a far-off voice.
I knew two facts about this Grimsby. He’d obviously been wealthy – as he’d left a collection large enough to require cataloging. He’d also died recently. I don’t mean in the last week or anything – he wasn’t fresh in the grave. Nope. Several months ago if I was any guess. And though that would be plenty of time for an acquaintance to get over him, if Jeffrey was still hung up on the guy, that meant they’d been close.
I could practically hear the cogs in my mind turning around and clicking and whirring like some mechanical beast getting ready to eat all the facts she could find.
I wanted to remind myself why I was here, but that had about as much chance of working as this crappy old car did of winning Le Mans.
“So he was a collector, then?” I pointed out the patently obvious.
Jeffrey nodded. He was still looking at the road with a far-off quality to his gaze – which wasn’t a great thing, as this damn road was so twisty, there was no horizon line. Still, Jeffrey hadn’t run us off the road yet.
“A renowned collector. Traveled all over the world. One of the best in the business.”
“Sorry, business?” I asked politely.
“Treasure hunting,” he said off-hand.
Me? I made a face. A pouty, kind of confused, kind of halfway between laughing and halfway between hiccupping in surprise face. Because while my cynical mind wanted to tell me that Jeffrey was trying to pull my chain, my rational mind told me he was still staring off into space all distracted.
“… Sorry, treasure hunting?” I questioned in one of those light tones you use when you’re trying to point out that somebody said something patently crazy.
Jeffrey tugged his faraway gaze off the road and turned it on me for several seconds. He nodded. And the quality of the move and his expression were unquestionable – he wasn’t tugging my chain; he was telling the truth. Or at least what he thought was the truth.
I pressed my lips together. I wasn’t a naïve girl. Though I’d adored movies and books as a child, I’d also adored history. While you could loosely say that treasure hunters had existed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, now was a different time. Now was a time of regulations, finder’s fees, and sovereign borders. You couldn’t just find a map with X marks the spot in your attic, trundle across the world, bring your spade, dig up some Spanish doubloons, and be home in time for Sunday roast. It didn’t work like that.
So I pressed my lips together and let out a surprised little, “hmm.”
To which Jeffrey replied, “I know it sounds silly, dear, but trust me, it isn’t. Sometimes the real world can surprise us. Anyway, here we are,” Jeffrey said as he found what I was definitely sure was not a driveway and was just a dirt track up into the knotted woods. It was in such bad condition that the second we turned onto it, was the second I swore our car’s suspension gave up the ghost. I felt every single bump and jump as we rolled over the massive loose stones of the driveway. Jeffrey locked his hands harder on the wheel, leaned forward, and didn’t say a word as we traversed the winding driveway a good 500 m up and to the left.
Then? Finally, I saw the sweet roof of the cottage.
By that time, I swore my bones had been rattled right out of my body. I had a hand pressed flat against my stomach, surreptitiously using my arms to hem my cleavage in lest my boobs knocked me out.
“Ah, here we go. A bit of a rocky ride; sorry about that,” Jeffrey said earnestly as he stopped the car right in front of the house, walked around, and opened the door for me.
“Thank you,” I managed, though it was a real feat to stop my teeth from chattering. You needed a frigging Humvee to get up this road… or a tank. But then I turned around, got out of the car, and looked at the cottage.
I had a real thing for sweet stone Victorian era cottages with classic country gardens. You know the kind of cottages you get on postcards or puzzle boxes?
Oh yes, indeed, now I was staring at one. The garden was a little wild, but still beautiful, with overflowing lavenders, cornflowers, and lupins attracting all of the bumblebees and honeyeaters.
“It’s quite a sweet little house, isn’t it? You’ll be quite comfortable staying here, I think.”
“Sorry? Staying here? I thought I’d be staying with Ms. Smith?”
“Of course. I meant during the day; this job will take quite a deal of cataloging. Grimsby’s collection was extensive.”
With that, Jeffrey crammed a hand into his pocket, pulled out a set of house keys, walked up to the door, and opened it. I couldn’t deny that there was a… strange reverence about him. Though I couldn’t see the front of his face, I caught sight of his body language, and there was a keen stiffness about it.
Why did I keep getting the impression that whoever the heck this Grimsby was, he was important?
I mean, more important than finishing my Ph.D. I mean the kind of importance that seems to have a whole sleepy hamlet on edge?
Who the heck was this guy, and what exactly had happened to him?
More to the point, if he had everyone on edge, did I really want to know?
There was one thing I hated more than anything else – waiting.
Sandy still hadn’t obtained the address. And I knew why. Jeffrey Holmes was a slippery son of a bitch.
Still, I wasn't idle.
I was up on a ladder outside installing one of five motion sensors. The sophisticated kind. The kind that went off multiple thermal and motion readings to ascertain just exactly what was creeping around your house. They’d cost a packet, but I had to be cautious.
I pressed one knee into the wall as I balanced on top of the ladder, arm reached out to its full extension as I easily screwed the detector into the underside of the gable. Though I was certain the neighbors couldn’t see me on account of my horrendously overgrown garden, I’d still gone to all the trouble of lugging out a paint tin and brush to pretend I was sprucing up the house and not arming it.
I cracked my back, feeling the burn in my arms. I was usually stronger than this – I ensured I got exercise every day, because if you wanted to win in my game, you had to be strong. And no, I wasn’t talking about being an actuary. I had a hobby, and it was a demanding one.
But despite my fitness, my back was stiff. You see, I’d slept on the couch last night. This house had six bedrooms, and you’d think that would be plenty. But only one of them had a bed, and there was no way I would set my head down and rest in the same place my father had. I was a dispassionate man, but I had a line – and that was it.
With sweat slicking my brow, I finally finished wiring the sensor in. I’d already fixed the power issue. And no, I wasn’t a registered electrician. But I had a range of skills. A very diverse and yet strangely specific set of skills.
Though I was finished, rather than jump off the ladder and relax on the couch, I slipped the screwdriver in my hand into my pocket, covered it with a painting cloth, then continued to paint the gable to keep up appearances. Seriously, no one could see, and no one in this sleepy hamlet was that hard up for fun that they’d watch paint dry.
Still, I was a meticulous man. I had to be.
Half an hour later, I got it. The message I’d been waiting for since I’d got here. As soon as my phone pinged, I practically flipped off the ladder.
I yanked my phone out of my pocket and stared at the screen.
There it was. The address to my father’s secret house. Just one of the many secrets he’d left when he’d died. My father, after all, had been a master of mystery. An ordinary man on the outside – but a complicated, secretive son of a bitch within. And me? Though I’d fight you on this, a part of me knew I was a chip off the old block.
Great. So it was turning out that Jeffrey, while being a complete sweetie, was also a complete airhead. He’d driven off in a tizz halfway through showing me around and had forgotten that I didn’t have any transport. He’d forgotten about an urgent appointment, which wasn’t surprising, as it was clear with one look at the guy that he’d forget his own head if it weren’t handily attached to his body.
Frigging fantastic. Now I had to walk all the way back into town.
There was one thing I was thankful of, though. Jeffrey had already confirmed that this road only led in one direction. That meant little old me couldn’t get lost. Not that I had a poor sense of direction or anything. Despite Katie’s protestations, I was actually a bit of an adventurous girl. I was, however, keenly aware that I was not in the right shoes. Don’t get me wrong, the shoes were fantastic – these super sweet vintage flats I’d bought at the thrift store for a bob. Point was, however, I didn’t much enjoy the fact that I’d have to walk all the way back into Huddleston with absolutely no arch support.
Though I could of course wait around until Jeffrey picked me up, I imagined the old goose would probably forget about me. And I had work I needed to get done.
I brought my phone out of my pocket, drawing my arm up and trying to push as high as I could in the hope I could catch a bar of signal. No luck. Apparently Hammersmith Hill was the middle of frigging nowhere when it came to mobile reception.
Shoving my hands into my pockets, I went to go close the door behind me. That’s when I heard a peculiar kind of rattle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an expert when it comes to doors and the ways they should sound, but this sounded… hollow somehow.
I had a pretty keen sense of hearing. And as I swung the door back and forth experimentally, I definitely heard something shift around that shouldn’t be there.
“Come on, girl – leave it alone. If you’re going to make it back for dinner, you have to start walking now.”
Though I spoke those words of sanity, they couldn’t sink in. Before too long, I found myself rattling the door back and forth as if I were going to wrench it from its hinges.
There was definitely something inside it.
“Fine, whatever, satisfy your curiosity,” I muttered to myself.
In short order, I returned to the house and found a set of tools. Though Jeffrey had warned that the Grimsby collection was a complete mess and that the old man had been a bit of an eccentric goat, I didn’t think it was that messy. Or maybe I just thought like Grimsby. I found the tools not under the sink or in a handy maintenance cupboard, but under the bed. That’s where I would keep my tools, too, because you never knew when you would need to roll out of bed, grab up a pair of pliers, and bedazzle your shoes. Right?
Just go with it.
Point was, I found the tools, returned to the door, set the tools down, tightened my Alice band, and got to work.
Your average girl probably wouldn’t be able to unhinge a door in under a few minutes, but I wasn’t your average girl. With my generous build, I was actually pretty strong. Despite the fact modern society would consider me more than a few pounds too heavy, underneath, I was fit. I wasn’t the best runner, but I was damn robust. So I pulled the door off, set it to the side of the kitchen table, crammed my hands on my hips, hooked the screwdriver behind my ear, and shot the door a pointed look. “Now,” I flicked a manicured finger at it, “what secrets do you hide?”
The door was leaning against the wall, and as I grabbed it, I pulled it around so I could see the bottom. Sure enough, there was… well, I don’t know what to call it, a secret compartment?
If this was James Bond, it would be a secret compartment. But this was the real world, so it was probably just a small section of wood that had fallen off and someone had fixed.
… Right? Though I kept telling myself that, a cluster of nerves still escaped through my gut.
I told those nerves to calm the heck down, got down on my knees, grabbed up the screwdriver, crammed it into the compartment, and opened it in a swift move. And out popped a postcard.
I’m not shitting you. Out popped a postcard. I kind of expected I’d find termites or you know… wood.
But that’s not what I found.
It was a postcard protected by an envelope of thick plastic.
“The fuck?” I rightly said as I turned the postcard around, smoothed my hand over what I knew to be a Mylar sheet, being in the curatorial business, and tried to read it.
There were just five words. “Cross to the next clue.” I turned the postcard around and realized it depicted an azure blue coastline leading up to a city beyond.
I gazed at the postcard, wondering why the hell it didn’t have a tagline telling me where it was. Turning it over, I realized there wasn’t even any copyright information on the back – like the name of the photographer or, you know, the frigging location.
“What the hell is this?” I commented as I put the postcard down, rattled the door for good measure, shrugged, and went back to the laborious task of putting the door back on its hinges. In under five minutes, I was done. I was a whiz when it came to fixing things. My father owned a handyman store, and I was his disciple. Though in my current life I tended to simply use those skills to embellish my many thrift store buys, I was still a handy girl when I needed to be.
I leaned over, picked up the postcard, flapped it around a bit, locked a hand on my hip, and thought.
I shrugged. I packed up the tools and went to put them away.
Then? I paused. I also walked up to the door that led into the hall in front of me, grabbed it, and gave it a rattle. Nope, no secret postcard in this one – sounded solid.
So off I went around the house checking every frigging doorway and cupboard and wardrobe door until I found another one – a weird little rattler.
I set about removing the offending door, and within five minutes, had another bloody postcard.
What the heck was this?
I was starting to reassess what Jeffrey had told me. When he’d said that Grimsby was… eccentric, I’d taken that to mean that he was the kind of guy who filled his house with old newspaper clippings and egg cups. You know, a weird collector.
But who in the hell hollowed out their doors, stuck postcards inside, and rehung them?
I wasn’t going to get my answer. And instead swept through the house one more time. In total, I found three postcards. I set them down – keeping them in their protective sleeves, because I was a trained historian, after all – and stared at them on the table. My hands were clamped on the wood, and there was a deep frown pressing across my lips. All three postcards depicted various locations around the world. One was quite picturesque and beachy – the first one I’d found. Another showed the side of a snow-capped hill. Another appeared to show the corner of an island somewhere. Not a tropical island, mind you; one that looked as if it were more northern than that.
Running a careful eye over all three postcards, it took me only a few more minutes to find tiny little marks in the corner of each. At first, I ignored them as smudges, but on closer inspection, I realized they were dashes. Specifically the beach postcard had an I/V. The island postcard had an IV/V, and the mountain postcard had an II/V. I wasn’t a genius – okay, I was a genius – but any old soul would be able to realize that there were five postcards in total. And me? I had three.
Three postcards… and a huge damn headache. Because what on earth were these things, and why had they been hidden inside doors? They weren’t gold, diamonds, or, you know, drugs. Anything that one would have a good reason to hide well out of sight.
“This is frigging weird,” I commented to myself several more times. Then? I leaned out of the open doorway and tipped my head up. It was going to get dark soon, wasn’t it?
Time to trudge all the way back. Though my little postcard distraction had cost about an hour, Jeffrey still hadn’t returned. And it was a fair assumption to conclude that he wasn’t going to return. Time to walk all the way home, or at least until I could get some reception.
“Fantastic,” I commented as I pointed at each of the postcards in turn. I lined them up neatly – some may say anally – on the table. Before I walked out the door and closed it, I patted a finger on my lips. Then?
I scooped up the postcards, then carefully inserted them into a book in my bag so they wouldn’t get bent.
“Better than leaving them here,” I commented to myself. I found the deadlock, locked the door, and walked out.
There was a fair breeze picking up, but I very rarely felt cold. I fixed my Alice band, coiffed my hair with a pat, secured my bag on my shoulder, and began the long trudge. Suffice to say, walking down the nasty rocky driveway until I reached the main road was a frigging pain. Though these shoes were truly sweet, they didn’t have any soles to speak of – and as a consequence, I felt every single pointed stone.
When I made it to the main road, I began the long trek down. My hope that I’d be able to find a bar of signal before I reached the main roads of Huddleston was completely smashed.
In fact, I didn’t pass anyone – and certainly not Jeffrey bringing his shitty V-dub chariot to save me.
No, wait, I did pass someone. A prick in a convertible.
I stuck my thumb out to ask for a lift, but said prick in the convertible just zoomed on past. He had reflective shades on, a polo shirt, and the kind of jaw that could crack walnuts.
Oh, and despite the fact I only saw him for a few fleeting seconds as he completely ignored my distress, I could tell even from here that he was the world’s biggest asshole.
Good-looking, though. But what does that count for when one has a personality like a dead rabbit?
This better be wrong, I thought to myself as I tightened my hands on the steering wheel and took the corners of the road far too quickly. My car managed it, though. Its rear-wheel drive kicked into gear, and it hugged those corners with just the right amount of slip to let me know I was alive.
But even the joy of going hell-for-leather along these deathtrap roads wasn’t enough to shift my mind from one fact.
My father had owned a cottage, and he’d never told me about it.
I brought a hand up and suddenly slammed it on the steering wheel hard enough that the entire dash shuddered.
“Bastard,” I muttered under my breath.
The trip was uneventful, though I saw a woman walking practically in the middle of the road at one point.
I’d never seen her around town, and though she’d been sticking her thumb out for a lift, I’d ignored her.
I wasn’t one for charity. Nor would I pick up random broads who looked like they had more polka dots than a measles epidemic.
I hit the steering wheel one more time until I finally found a small rocky driveway that led up to my father’s cottage.
“Bastard,” I commented again as I pulled the car to the left and into the driveway. It was in hellish condition, and I clenched my teeth as I heard rocks pinging out from underneath my tires. If they damaged my paintwork, I’d burn this frigging cottage down to the ground. But first? First, I would find those fucking postcards.
I came to a stop outside the cottage, then I paused, and I stared at it.
I wasn’t an emotional man; I was a cold, rational bastard. I’d crafted that personality over several years, thank you very much, and it was almost perfect.
But cold, emotionless bastards shouldn’t feel sick when they look at cottages they didn’t know their fathers owned. Okay, that was a bizarrely specific example, but the point was, this was yet further evidence that my father had lied to me. He’d made an entire life out of lying to me, so why should I be surprised now?
I finally got out of the car, slammed the door closed so hard that the entire vehicle rattled, and I came to a stop in front of the door. I crammed both hands into my pockets, not caring that my shirt had become untucked and was flapping against my ass. Heck, I wasn’t even wearing a tie anymore. I really didn’t think I was going to come across any easy-on-the-eye babes out here in the middle of frigging nowhere.
I stood there for so long, just staring at that door, my jaw clenching harder until I spat at myself, “just get it over with.”
I reached out and tried the handle. It was locked. So I shoved a hand into my pocket, pulled out a penknife, flipped it open, shoved it into the lock, and within a minute, had it open.
Then I walked into my father’s cottage. A place where he’d apparently spent most of his time. For, if Sandy was to be believed, he’d owned this thing most of our lives. He’d gone up here every other day, and I’d never known.
The vindictive part of my mind told me my brother had probably known, but even though that was a satisfying story that spoke to my brotherly competition, it probably wasn’t right. After all, if dear Jake Grimsby had known about this cottage, it would have been razed to the ground by now. He would’ve gone through the damn thing with forensic scientists, looking for the postcards. But the house was still here, so even Jake didn’t know about it.
The idiot Jeffrey Holmes did, but he was a complicated man.
I took a tight breath, one that couldn’t begin to push the tension from my chest, and I walked in.
I clasped my hands behind my back as if I were in a museum. In reality, all I was doing was holding onto myself, lest I lash out. The last thing I wanted to do was inadvertently destroy one of those postcards and ruin my entire life’s work.
“Come on, you bastard – where have you put them?” I commented out loud as I strode around the cottage.
It was sweet and had one major floor with a small attic atop. There was the main room, a library, and three bedrooms, and they were all stacked full of shit. There were also two sheds outside. And you guessed it, they were chunked full of crap. If there was one thing my father had been good at, it was collecting useless junk.
And yet, somewhere within all of this useless junk would be those postcards. I was sure of it. Because if they weren’t here, I would just have to keep waiting. And I couldn’t fucking do that anymore.
I didn’t have the time to go through his cottage with a fine-tooth comb today. I gave the surface a once over, checking in key places like under the bed and in the library. When the obvious didn’t reveal the postcards, I walked out of the house.
That would be when I heard the crunch of tires coming up the deadly driveway.
I stiffened. Every single muscle down my back and into my jaw felt as if somebody had injected them with tetanus. I could barely move them.
I still had the penknife in my pocket, and reaching a hand around, I carefully clasped it around the cool metal.
It could be anyone.
If Sandy had finally found out where the postcards were, my dear brother could’ve found out, too. And his competitors could have found out just as easily.
Shit. I had a gun in my car – secured in a safety box in the boot. But I didn’t have time to get it.
Because a car came into view.
I was expecting a black van – maybe a frigging Humvee to get up this suicidal driveway.
… But that’s not what I got. I got a beaten up V-dub that looked as if it had seen the wrong side of one too many hailstorms and World Wars.
And inside the V-dub? Jeffrey Holmes.
He looked more than a little confused when he stopped the car and got out, gazing from my expensive Mercedes up to me. “James?” he questioned almost as if he were expecting someone else.
Fortunately, I’d closed and locked the frigging door, and when I’d picked the lock, I’d been sure not to damage it.
So I pressed a smile over my face. “Sorry, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I’m in town. I heard from a friend of dad’s that this cottage existed. I just… I had to see it. Just wanted to be reminded of dad one last time,” I added, forcing my voice to drop low and to shake with the kind of emotion a grieving son should exhibit.
This softened Jeffrey, and his shoulders shrugged down. But he still cast the house a curious glance. “Where is she, then?”
“The house?” I asked, brows scrunching in obvious confusion.
“Audrey. Miss Diamond,” he clarified when I just stood there.
Though I wanted to point out that Miss Diamond sounded like a stripper, I didn’t. I put two and two together. “The round hitchhiker,” I said, bringing my hands out to indicate her hefty figure. “Overly fond of polka dots,” I added.
Jeffrey pressed his lips together. Though I’d been playing the good, sad son up until now, he shot me the kind of look that told me I’d overstepped the line. “Excuse me if I come from a time when we don’t comment on a lady’s figure,” Jeffrey said politely. “But have you seen her? She should still be inside. I was called away, and I forgot to mention we don’t have mobile reception up here.”
“I think she got bored and started walking back to town,” I commented, trying to smooth a pleasant smile over my face.
“Oh dear. How do you know that?”
Because I ignored her and drove past her as fast as I could, I wanted to say. I shrugged. “I think I saw somebody like her walking toward the town.”
Jeffrey looked crestfallen. “Oh, how rude of me. I hope she was safe,” he added.
I snorted. “Not many wolfs and vagabonds around these parts,” I added.
Jeffrey? Jeffrey didn’t react. Not really, anyway. He kind of pressed a smile over his face, but there was a stiff quality to it.
I may be a cold, emotionless shit, but I’d also made a life out of reading other people’s emotions, and Jeffrey was holding something back.
“Strange times,” he commented under his breath. Then he nodded toward the house. “Would you like to look inside?”
Not particularly, as I’d just spent the last hour looking inside. But now I was caught on the spot, so I shrugged. “That would be great. But I don’t want to waste any of your time.”
“I think it’s the right of the son to see how his father lived, don’t you?” Jeffrey said carefully.
Me? It was my turn to hope like hell I was giving nothing away. I used all of my muscular control to ensure my expression was blank. I let my lips crack open. “Indeed.”
With that, Jeffrey bustled past and opened the door. As he did, he shot me a curious glance. “It’s not creaking anymore,” he commented. “Perhaps Miss Diamond oiled it,” he suggested.
With Jeffrey safely facing the other direction, I shot him the kind of look that said he was mad. Who the hell randomly oiled doors?
Plus, I’d only caught one brief glance of Miss Diamond, but I doubted she was one for heavy lifting. And no, that wasn’t a joke.
Walking back into the house, I felt the exact same feelings twist around my gut as when I’d walked in the first time.
I clamped my hands behind my back and held them so tightly, it would look as if my shoulder muscles were trying to rip from my scapular.
Fortunately Jeffrey appeared a little distracted. “Oh, she is good, isn’t she? She was only here for several hours, and look what she’s done.”
“Sorry? I’m not following,” I commented, hoping my words weren’t harsh, as I couldn’t damn control how clenched my jaw had become. With every step into this cottage, I felt it – my father’s indifference, my father’s lies, my father’s everything.
“Oh, how rude – I haven’t explained a thing. As Grimsby left this cottage to me, I’ve invited Miss Diamond to catalog the collection.”
I shook my head. “Ah, sorry, what? Catalog your collection?”
“I’m simply too old to do it anymore. Though your father gave me this cottage for the express purpose that I go through his collection, catalog it, and distribute it to the local museums, I just… my heart isn’t in it anymore,” he explained.
Though I’d already found out that dad had given Jeffrey this cottage, just hearing it was enough to make my blood boil. I honestly felt a pain in my throat, and it was pounding as hard as a frigging hammer on an anvil.
“Miss Diamond is doing her Ph.D. in history, you see. Wants to be a curator at a museum one day. I found her through an associate at the University. Very clever girl.”
“I’m sure she is.”
“Look,” he gestured at the table. There were several piles of neatly arranged books, letters, and papers. I’d already had a rifle through them, returning them to the exact position they’d been in before I left the house. No postcards.
Jeffrey walked over, took a cursory glance at the files, and nodded once more. “She’s already picked out the most valuable books. She’s only been here for several hours. A truly resourceful girl.”
I was bored with the conversation. Really, I was. Beyond the fact Miss Polkadot Diamond had a bust you could lose an entire man down, she was completely irrelevant to me.
The only thing that was relevant was getting the hell out of here.
Then something clicked. “So you’re saying Miss Diamond’s going to be going through the entire collection. When… exactly?”
“Over the next two months. It will be a lengthy process. As you’ve probably seen, the entire house and all of its sheds are completely full of collectibles.”
I opened my mouth to agree, then I stopped. I also froze mid-step and shot the back of Jeffrey’s head a calculating glance.
Was that comment designed to trap me, or just an ineloquent choice of words?
Jeffrey didn’t seem to care that I didn’t answer, and kept strolling through the house. He kept on commenting about how damn efficient Miss Diamond was until I wanted to track this Miss Diamond down and kick her out of the frigging country. She was stopping Jeffrey from concentrating. Also, she was going to be a big fucking distraction. And no, that wasn’t a comment about her bust or her weight. That was simply a comment about the fact it was going to be hard to sift through this collection for the postcards if she was going to be in the way.
“She’s not staying here, though?” I questioned innocently, hoping that the exact pitch my voice rose to was one of innocent conversation and not interrogation.
“Oh, no – it’s too far out for her to stay here. No, she’ll be staying with Ms. Smith in town. I never… never liked this cottage at night. It seems to attract the wrong types,” he added.
I had no idea what to do with that comment. Seemed to attract the wrong types? It was up a 10 km winding road that led to nowhere apart from an overgrown hill.
Though I was sure Jeffrey was just going to let this comment slip, he didn’t. He stopped in the doorway that led to the small set of stairs to the attic above, and he turned to me, his hands clasped behind his back. “Your father… had a wide range of detractors,” he commented.
I lost it, but not completely. I didn’t give into the rage billowing in my gut, turn around, and trash the house. Instead, my cheek twitched, the tension marching all the way across my brow and making my teeth lock together as if somebody had wrapped wire around my head.
“But you know that, don’t you, James? I suppose you have your eyes wide open, don’t you?”
I didn’t know where Jeffrey was going with this.
“Just as I trust you know that the next time you want to get into this house, all you have to do is ask,” Jeffrey said.
And me? I stopped. I took a heavy breath, tried to smile, then just let it drop. “I didn’t think you would mind. I mean, this house should have been mine, after all. Grimsby… I mean father, did leave me his holdings.”
“I think you’ll find he specifically – and legally – gifted me this house before he died. And therefore this house was not contained in the will. But anyhow, water under the bridge,” Jeffrey commented.
I let a stiff smile spread my cheeks.
“Though I imagine you probably don’t need to come back here again, do you?” Jeffrey commented.
I looked at him, hoping it was as even and unemotional as it could possibly be.
“Though I was incapable of cataloging this collection, I did go through it. With a fine-tooth comb. And I found nothing.”
I nodded. It wasn’t exactly stiff as more of a jerky snap. It was like my neck muscles had been replaced with rubber that had aged and was ready to snap.
“Anyway, this has been a rather pleasant encounter. Now you have had a look at your father’s collection and we have come to an understanding, how about you drop by Ms. Smith before you go? I’m sure she would love to see you. You do remember that she babysat you when you were a child, don’t you?”
“Yes, I remember,” I commented, ensuring my voice was guarded.
Though I hated everybody in this town, I had a soft spot for Ms. Smith. She’d been so kind. And as for my mother, she’d died when I was young.
“Well, do drop in sometime. I’m sure you’d love to meet Miss Diamond, too.”
“Indeed,” I said, dropping into the same tone I used whenever I needed to fob off polite company.
With that, Jeffrey turned around and walked out of the house.
I stood there, casting my gaze from left-to-right, staring at the hodgepodge of so-called collectibles.
Inside? My gut clenched tighter and tighter.
“Come along, James,” Jeffrey said. “It’s time to lock up.”
I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes, curled my hands into fists, and followed.
It turns out I’d been right, ha? I wouldn’t get this done in a day – no, this would take weeks. Because Jeffrey had warned me off – though not in as many words.
We walked out of the house, and Jeffrey conscientiously locked it, giving the door another rattle. “Must’ve oiled it,” he commented. “What a resourceful girl.”
Though I wanted to scream at the old bastard to stop commenting about Miss Frigging Diamond, I just kept the smile locked over my mouth as we both got into our cars.
Though I had every intention of waiting for Jeffrey to leave first, he obviously wanted me to go first. He leaned forward on his seat and spread a hand toward me, his meaning clear.
I clenched my jaw, started the car, and drove away.
Though I had made a life out of getting exactly what I wanted, my father – in one of the rare moments he’d actually talked to me had pointed out one thing. We don’t always get what we want. Well, he was wrong. You put in enough time, you bleed enough, you sweat enough, and you can get it all.
Which is exactly what I was going to do.
I hadn’t told anyone about the postcards. Because I wasn’t exactly sure how to bring it up. Though Jeffrey had come over for dinner that night and had apologized profusely for making me walk home, I hadn’t pointed out I’d taken most of the doors off their hinges in Grimsby’s cottage.
Because honestly, how do you broach that subject? Oh, by the way, when you ditched me, I started rattling the doors, got curious, yanked them off their hinges, oiled a few, found some postcards, then put the doors back where I found them.
Yeah, awkward. Plus, Ms. Smith had been at the table, and my love radar had been going wild. You see, I have a talent for matching people. It’s a Cupid thing. Ms. Smith obviously had a thing for Jeffrey. Though Jeffrey was one of those stalwart, stiff-upper-lip, proper English gentlemen, he totally had a thing for her, too.
So rather than get in the way of all of the vibes zapping around, I kept to myself, shoveled my food into my mouth, and kept the polite grin smoothed over my face.
After we’d had coffee and mints, I retired to my small room.
I hadn’t even thought about the postcards, I’d just rolled into bed.
Now it was morning, and as I stood in front of my closet, trying to decide what to wear, I cast my gaze over my shoulder toward my bags.
Shoving my thumb into my mouth, tapping my nail against my teeth, I decided to hell with it, and I trotted over to my bag, plucked out the book, and looked at the three postcards. “Well, what are you, then?” I demanded.
Obviously, owing to the fact they were dead paper, they didn’t answer.
That didn’t stop me from methodically smoothing my bed covers and, one-by-one, carefully placing the postcards next to each other on my bed.
Now I’d had a night to think about it, I could appreciate that these were important. Not that I ever honestly thought that Grimsby had accidentally inserted the postcards into his door. Just that I hadn’t quite appreciated the motive anyone would have for doing such a thing.
There were two possible conclusions. These postcards had emotional value. Maybe they were from some long-lost love. The true flame of Grimsby’s life. I’d found out from Jeffrey that Grimsby had once had a wife, but hadn’t been together with anyone later in life. So maybe the postcards represented a long-lost flame – the true love of his life that he’d let slip in his younger years.
… Or maybe not. These postcards weren’t that old. Granted, Grimsby had known what he was doing – he’d protected them in acid-free sleeves that had practically been vacuum sealed.
They were well preserved, but judging by the quality of the photo, the paper, and the print, they couldn’t be more than 10 years old.
So, my original flame theory was now shot to pieces. The basis of the theory, however, could stand. These postcards could still have been of emotional significance for Grimsby. Hence he’d… you know, pulled his doors off their hinges, hollowed them out, and shoved the cards inside. But then there was theory number two. The theory my gut wanted to go with. It presently lurched, and I reached a hand out, tapping a finger carefully on the protective Mylar sleeve around the nearest postcard. I couldn’t deny the expectation that was running up and down my back.
What if the postcards had an intrinsic value? You know, money. What if, somehow, they pointed toward something significant?
I was reminded of what Jeffrey had said in the car on the way to Grimsby’s cottage. Grimsby had been a treasure hunter. Though at the time – like any other sensible girl in the world – I’d wanted to laugh off the comment as impossible. Now… now my back kept itching with nerves.
I brought a hand up, patted it on my head – which I often did when I was trying to think, as if I was trying to cram the thoughts down and out through my mouth – and I took a breath.
They couldn’t be treasure maps, right?
Boom, I’d said it. Or at least I’d thought it. Say it out loud, and I might have to laugh derisively at myself. Because, honestly, thinking they were treasure maps was mad. Treasure maps didn’t exist. Not outside of pirate novels, anyway. If people went to the trouble of burying treasure, they tended to remember where it was. They would have put it in some unique, well-hidden place, and then they’d have written themselves a private note or some such. They didn’t, you know, send themselves postcards of random locations around the world and then stick them inside their doors.
“This is doing my head in,” I commented to the postcards as I fobbed a hand at them. “Plus, I have work to do. I need to start valuing those books.”
Before I’d left Grimsby’s – and in between pulling all of his doors off their hinges – I’d had a quick look at his book collection. I’d pulled out the ones I knew to be relatively valuable, but there were a few others I’d left in the library that I had doubts about. I couldn’t figure their value off the top of my head, and though I’d gone on ABE Books and a few of the other rare booksellers, there were no listings for those titles.
First things first, I was going to head to the library – see if they were by a local author before I contacted any of the rare booksellers in London. There were a few other things I needed to check out at the library about the collection, too.
Though I could have just left the postcards sitting on my bed, I didn’t. I crammed them back in the same book, shifted around the room a bit, then hid them under the bed.
Yeah okay, not the best place to hide your valuables – as every single crook in the entire world looks under the bed first. It was more about Ms. Smith not disturbing them.
Until I did more research, I wanted to keep this to myself.
With that, I dressed, selecting a super sweet rose patterned 50s dress with the kind of flair that made my hips look massive and brought all of the right kind of attention to my bust, another Alice band, some seriously cute red daisy earrings, a nice red ring to match, and then a bag to finish off the outfit.
I swung the bag over my shoulder, strolled out of my room, said a quick goodbye to Ms. Smith, and headed out onto the streets.
Though I hadn’t seen that much of Huddleston yet, there was a curious fact that only hit me now. When I’d looked this village up, I’d assumed it would be one of those sleepy little hamlets you get dotted around the English countryside. You know, throwbacks to the past – all sandstone and thatch and Tudor houses.
Huddleston was a weird mix. While there were county manors back in the hills, working farms, and whatnot, the town was a weird hodgepodge of cake and jam stalls mixed in with expensive boutiques.
Obviously Huddleston attracted a mixed crowd. Not just the farmers who tended the fields, but the rich hoi polloi who owned them. It was like walking back into the feudal past. As I passed a boutique that had clothes on display that looked as if they were made for praying mantises and not real women, I made a face.
I also saw a car behind me. It was the same black Mercedes with the same damn good-looking prick who’d sped up past me when I’d needed a lift yesterday.
I frowned at his reflection in the shop window as he came to a stop on the opposite side of the road.
I loved to spy on people, and I was rather good at it.
Rather than turn around and openly stare at the bastard, I kept looking at the reflection in the window on the premise of checking my makeup.
Mr. Good-Looking Jerk walked halfway across the street, hands crammed in his pockets, then he came to a skidding stop. I do actually mean skidding – his designer shoes caught on the asphalt.
Then he snapped his head toward me as if it were on a spring.
And yeah, he was looking at me. The reflection was a little warped because of the old glass in the boutique window, but I had a direct line of sight.
“What the hell?” I muttered under my breath, wondering if Mr. Good-Looking Prick was going to stride over here and tell me not to touch his car and that good-looking pricks like him never give lifts to fat birds like me.
That, however, isn’t what happened.
He made it across the street, obviously headed my way, but got waylaid by this skinny supermodel type who suddenly popped out of the boutique beside me. She flung the door open with all the drama of a prima ballerina bursting out from behind a red velvet curtain for a curtain-call. “James? Oh my God, you’re back. Why didn’t you tell me?” The super skinny supermodel type leaped at him.
She had it all. Long legs, skinny waist, bouncy hair that would probably catch alight if you took it within several feet of an open flame, and perfect porcelain skin. Though any fool could see there was a good layer of foundation on and some savvy use of illuminators. Point was, she was your average man’s dream.
James, however, looked surprised as she threw herself at him. “You should have told us you’re back. How long? Ms. Smith’s been saying you’ll be here for a few weeks yet. You should have let us know. We can’t have you getting lonely,” she purred.
I had to press my lips hard not to snort.
Did people honestly have these kinds of conversations?
Apparently supermodel types did.
Though I was mad keen on watching this weird little show through the reflection in the window, supermodel-type pulled an arm through James’ and began to pull him toward the store. “Come inside so we can catch up.”
“Oh, Madeline, I don’t really—” James began. Though I was doing him a courtesy of thinking of him as James – in my head forevermore he’d be Mr. Prick.
Or Mr. Smooth Prick. Because he had that kind of shiny, glossy charm about him that reminded one of something that had been over waxed – which was his hair, by the way, as it was sticking up as if someone had attacked it with enough hairspray to satisfy a gaggle of 80s rock bands.
“Did you get time off work? Aren’t you an actual from Lloyd’s now?”
“It’s actuary,” James said in a low but nonetheless polite tone.
I couldn’t help it anymore, and I snorted. I tried to hide it – I honestly did. I crammed a hand over my mouth and tried to convert it into a cough, but it was too late – Ms. Supermodel cast a wary glance my way. The kind of glance that looked me up and down, lingered on my ample, round behind, then shot me the kind of glare that told me in her eyes I was pond scum. Fat pond scum.
Though I was perfectly happy to point out she was a skinny idiot – I didn’t exactly have any right to, as I’d been listening in to a conversation and we were technically nothing more than total strangers.
“Look, Madeline, I’m actually kind of busy. I’ll catch up with you later,” James said as he clearly tried to extract himself from the situation.
Though all I wanted to do was stand here and watch Mr. Prick suffer, I’d already given my cover away. I was no longer secretly watching them – I was overtly watching them, and I had standards.
Pretending to fix my hair one last time, I turned hard on my heel in the opposite direction and strode off, clapping my hands behind my back, ensuring my butt didn’t wiggle too much.
I kept an ear out and heard James continue to try to extract himself from Madeline, but she obviously had such a good clutch on his arm that he’d require a crowbar or a restraining order. He clearly had neither, and by the time I made it around the corner, I allowed myself a chuckle.
It was then that I started to frown. Was it my imagination, or had James walked up to me like he had something to say to me? I doubted it was that he wanted to apologize for not picking me up on the road last night.
But hey, who knows – I never understood how good-looking pricks’ minds worked.
By the time I made it to the library, I’d put Mr. Prick well and truly out of my mind.
I walked inside and instantly felt at ease. The library was a pretty understated affair considering the other expensive buildings in the middle of town, but it wasn’t the building that set me at ease – it was the books.
Books I could understand. I made a pretty successful side business for myself while I was studying by collecting and selling rare books online. I was somewhat of an authority on old history books from the Victorian era.
So as I walked in and nodded happily at the dear old lady behind the desk, I let out a happy sigh. I also made a beeline for the history section. Which was thankfully rather large. Not as large as the thriller and bodice-ripper section, but still enough that I found myself whiling away the next hour.
Though I didn’t find an answer to the quandary I was researching – the probable value of the books I’d set aside on Mr. Grimsby’s table – I found a few other quite interesting tomes.
For the rest of the afternoon, I pottered around, made notes, and finally trotted out when my stomach started to rumble.
Though I’d been a good girl and concentrated on my Ph.D. topic for most of the day, I had become sidetracked.
Okay, most of the time I’d been sidetracked. Though I’d gotten a fair bit of research done, I’d also randomly picked up a picture atlas of the world and started flipping through it on the hope of finding out the locations on those three postcards under my bed.
I’d quickly grown fed up – after all, it would simply be easier to take a photo of them and do a reverse image search on Google.
Which was something I was determined to do once I got home.
By the time I made it out of the library, it was close to closing.
Though I should head back to Ms. Smith’s, for some damnable crazy reason, I wanted to head up to Mr. Grimsby’s cottage. I wanted to spend the rest of the night methodically going through the house, checking for the remaining two postcards. They had to be there, right? No one went to the trouble of hiding three postcards inside doors and cupboards if they had placed the others in easy to find locations.
No. I was almost certain that Jeffrey or whomever else had already gone through the cottage hadn’t disturbed the remaining two postcards. They would just be even more cleverly hidden than the first three.
So, as crazy as it sounded, I walked all the way back to Ms. Smith, and rather than duck my head in to point out I was headed up to a cottage in the woods to pull it to pieces, I hopped straight in my car. I shoved the keys in the ignition, tried to turn on the engine, and… nothing. Not a peep.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I snarled as I tried once more.
I waited a few seconds in case the ignition was just playing hard to get. But no – it simply didn’t want to turn on.
“Great. I bet a mechanic around here is going to cost me the moon.” Grabbing my bag from my car, I got out, slammed the door, and stared glumly at my hatchback before kicking it.
“Fuck you, you little shit,” I snarled at it. “You may be pretty, but you’re useless when it comes to doing anything worthwhile,” I snapped. After all, my car was pretty. Just like everything else I owned, it was vintage. But also just like everything else I owned, it rarely worked for exactly that reason.
“I do hope you’re talking about the car and not me,” somebody said from behind me.
The voice was low, rumbly, and criminally easy to listen to. But it was also completely out of the blue, and I wasn’t expecting it.
I jumped, slammed a hand on my ample bosom, and turned sharply to see none other than Mr. Smooth Prick walking behind his car.
I kept my hand flattened on my chest. “Why exactly would I be talking about you?” I said, without even a stutter, thank you. For, despite the fact this guy had caught me beating my car, and doubly despite the fact he was one of the hottest men I’d ever seen, my voice didn’t waver.
I wasn’t the kind to fall apart at the sight of a beautiful boy.
No, I was the kind of girl who understood perfectly that men who had always been treated as attractive knew exactly how to manipulate you. They were like finding pretty berries in the forest only to find out they were quite poisonous.
… And yet, my mind could freely point out that I hadn’t been wrong. When I’d spied Mr. Good-Looking Prick in his reflective shades on the road and in town, I hadn’t been able to get a good look at him – but my gut had told me he was attractive. And my gut? 100 points to my gut – because it was totally right. This guy went beyond the average good-looking model type you might see on the High Street. No, because he had a rugged edge to him – the same kind of rugged edge you’d get in some gritty thriller.
Just my type. Well, apart from the aforementioned fact that he knew he was good-looking and was a complete idiot – which made him exactly the opposite of my type. But you get my point.
I unclamped my hand from my bust and wasn’t at all surprised when Mr. Prick’s eyes narrowed in on it. He may be the kind of jerk to think I was nothing more than a fat bird, but his eyes obviously had tastes of their own.
“Well, nice talking to you,” I managed as I promptly turned on my foot and headed toward Ms. Smith’s house.
“The name’s James Chase,” he said, leaning in and reaching a hand toward me.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, my eyebrows clunking down low. “I don’t really think we need to introduce ourselves, random guy on the street,” I said.
“Got a mouth on you, don’t you?” he muttered under his breath. It was quiet – but as I’d already mentioned, I had great hearing.
I brought a hand up and planted it on my hip, kind of ducking my head down low and looking at him from underneath my eyelashes. It wasn’t a pretty move, though – it was a challenging one. “Yes, sweetie – I do have a mouth on me. I also have a pair of functioning ears.”
He blanched, but it was only a slight move. It was kind of a bare acknowledgment that he’d been sprung.
Oh, I knew his type. I knew his type so well. The kind of good-looking, obviously rich, well-to-do asshole who thought he was better than everyone around him. And because he was better than everyone around him, he didn’t need to be nice – he didn’t need to follow ordinary social conventions. He could just be an ass and get away with it with a flick of his charming smile.
All these thoughts and more were raging through my head, and all these thoughts and more were probably adding to the less than pleased expression I continued to shoot him.
And yet, he still had his hand held out to me. His expression, however, was one of tried patience. Thankfully, he didn’t mutter under his breath anymore. He walked forward, let his hand drop, and nodded toward Ms. Smith’s house. “I think you’ll find, Miss Diamond, I’m a little more than a random guy on the street. I’m here for dinner. Jeffrey invited me, said I should meet you.”
Way to go to throw water on my burning flames of anger.
Rather than instantly double back, bow, kiss his shoes, and apologize for insulting him, I pressed my lips into a Cheshire smile. “Nice to meet you, then.”
He shot me the kind of look that told me I was see-through. And I shot him the kind of look that told him he was worse.
And together we walked up to Ms. Smith’s door.
James didn’t even have to reach out a hand and knock, all he had to do was appear on the doorstep, and Ms. Smith flung the door open. Her face lit up as if someone had crammed a candle into her skull.
Though I’d only known Ms. Smith for several days now, she was turning out to be the world’s greatest gem. Not only was she a fabulous cook, but she was genuinely kind.
So kind, apparently, that she appeared to hold actual, real affection for Mr. Prick. She shifted forward and folded him into a hug, and I was more than surprised when Mr. Prick smiled. “It’s good to see you, nanny,” he said in that quick tone someone reserves for a phrase they’ve repeated many times.
“Oh, James.” Ms. Smith straightened up and locked a hand on his face, pulling just short of pinching his cheek. “How you’ve grown? You’ve become so handsome. And accomplished. I heard you’re an actuary for Lloyd’s. That’s an important job, isn’t it? Well done, James. You always had a head for facts.”
“And risk,” James added. And the way he added it? Okay, I’d already made it abundantly clear that I hated this guy – but the way he said “and risk” made my stomach drop. It wasn’t an unpleasant move. It was the kind of shudder a good girl gets when she sees the bad boy rock up on his roaring bike.
I quickly pushed that reaction away, smiled at Ms. Smith, gave her a wave, plunged a hand into my bag, and pulled out a packet of biscuits I’d bought from the shop.
“Oh, dear, you didn’t need to do that.”
“I can’t exactly stay here and not help,” I said. “Jeffrey mentioned you like these.”
Ms. Smith took them off me with a smile, then walked into the kitchen.
Both Mr. Prick and I were standing on the doorstep, and while the step was wide, the doorway was not. One of us would have to enter first.
I looked at him out of my peripheral vision, waiting for him to do the gentlemanly thing and give way.
He marched right in.
“Saw that one coming,” I said under my breath.
It was nothing more than a whispered mumble, but James stopped, arched his head over his shoulder, and tilted it. There was something a little delicious about the way he tilted it, too. And no – I still knew he was a manipulative good-looking bastard. But excuse me if he didn’t have fine control over those equally fine neck and chest muscles. “I do have a functioning set of ears, Miss Diamond,” he said in the kind of tone that reminded one of being talked down to by their bank manager.
I just waited until he turned away, then I snarled at him.
If there was one thing Mr. Prick’s sudden entrance was doing, it was distracting me.
I was no longer thinking of finding the remaining two postcards and reverse image searching the three that were under my bed.
Okay, I’ll admit, I was looking at his ass as I followed him into the kitchen.
And then there was Jeffrey.
Though I was a step behind Mr. Prick, I was still close enough that when he entered the kitchen, I caught sight of Jeffrey’s face.
I may not be too fantastic when it came to holding my tongue, but I’d like to think I had great social awareness. I could read someone’s expression, even if they were skilled in hiding it.
Jeffrey tensed – but there was an odd quality about it. James had already admitted that Jeffrey had invited him over for dinner, so it couldn’t have been that James’ appearance was unexpected.
No… there was something… calculating in Jeffrey’s eyes, wasn’t there?
Whoa, another clue, the part of my brain that loved intrigue thought.
Then the part of my brain that also loved self-preservation realized I should probably be a little subtler in my investigations. Mr. Prick seemed to have his eyes on me, even if he was looking at me through his peripheral vision as he sat down, smoothed his tie, and shot Ms. Smith another smile.
“So, I take it you two have met?” Jeffrey said as he motioned toward me with a sweep of his hand.
“You could say that,” I said, ensuring my voice was sweet and only a tiny bit sarcastic.
“I think a proper introduction is required, though, don’t you, Miss Diamond? I simply don’t know enough about you,” he revealed, and damn him for saying it in such a smooth way that it made me wonder if I was listening to a late-night radio host. “James Chase,” he leaned across the table and offered a hand to me, and considering we had witnesses, I couldn’t exactly spit on it and slap it back, “Grimsby’s son.”
I’d already leaned forward to accept his hand, and though at the admission he was Grimsby’s son I wanted to blink back my surprise, James leaned forward, grasped my hand, and did all the shaking.
You guessed it, those fingers were firm and just the right level of hot, hot, hot.
I swallowed my surprise and gave a cute shrug which was a practiced move that always made my large cleavage go boing.
Thankfully, it worked, and rather than look like he still held all the cards, James’ gaze ticked down to my top once more.
“I didn’t know Grimsby had any surviving family,” I commented as I sat back down. “To be honest, I don’t know anything about him other than the fact he had an admirable collection.”
James simply looked at me. That was honestly the only way to describe it. No emotion, nothing. It was like I was being monitored by a CCTV camera.
Fortunately Ms. Smith was quick about getting dinner on the table, and soon enough, I was provided the opportunity to hide behind a knife and fork.
Ms. Smith appeared to have genuine affection for James and quickly started chatting to him about his life.
Reading between the lines, I surmised that James a) had daddy issues, and b) was a highly paid actuary for Lloyd’s – which everybody kept pointing out, and c) hated coming back to Huddleston.
In the space of one dinner, I felt I knew exactly who James was. And that person was slightly more complicated than the good-looking prick I assumed him to be.
As for Jeffrey?
He officially had issues of his own. Though he and James did engage in conversation, it was somewhat stilted. It seemed to revolve around Grimsby’s cottage, too. And I might be jumping out on a limb here, but it was as if James hadn’t known it existed.
Though the rational, sensible part of my mind told me not to get bogged down by this, I quickly stifled that voice.
This was genuinely interesting. Sure, I was here to do my Ph.D., but couldn’t a girl have a little fun?
Though I’d started the day vaguely intending to tell Jeffrey about the postcards I’d found, there was no way I was going to do that in front of James.
In fact, the longer I held onto the secret that I’d found them, the more it felt like a secret full stop. Which was ridiculous, right? I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d only innocently dismantled several doors in a dead man’s property, stolen some postcards, and hidden my tracks.
… Heck, the more I thought about this, the weirder it sounded.
Though I was off with the fairies, lost in my own thoughts by the time dessert arrived, that would be exactly when Mr. Prick returned his attention to me. His full attention. And if I were the type to blush – I’d be going incandescent. There was something about him locking his gaze on you that was tantamount to the man wrapping his arms around your waist and stopping you in place. I didn’t exactly feel like the deer in the headlights, but it was close.
“What’s your research about?” he asked, his voice vaguely polite. Polite enough that neither Jeffrey nor Ms. Smith would be able to pick up the fact this guy was a jerk.
Though I doubted the guy actually cared, I launched into a lengthy explanation.
And weirdly, he listened. Possibly intently. When I was done, he leaned back, settled his cake fork on the plate, and crossed his arms. And hello? Despite the fact he had a jacket on, I swore I could see just how defined his arm muscles were. It was like they were poking out of his jacket to wave at me.
I kept it together. “Sorry to bore you,” I mumbled.
“I’m not bored, Miss Diamond,” he said.
There was something about the way he said Miss Diamond that made me feel like a porn star or a stripper. It was the way his voice bottomed out on the word diamond, became more grating and husky.
“I’ve always been fascinated by history myself. Did a major in it. In between theoretical maths, statistics, and accounting, that is,” he said.
Toot. Toot. Toot. I loved a man who would toot his own horn. Not. Who the hell liked people who were so arrogant that they took any opportunity to point out how better they were than you?
Before I could get truly defensive, cross my arms, and wiggle my shoulders, he leaned forward again. He rested his hand on the table and let his fingers tap against the side of his plate.
It looked like an unconscious move, and yet there was something deliberate about the exact beat of his fingers, something almost mesmerizing. “I’ll be here for the next two weeks or so. If you need a hand, I’d be happy to help.”
Though my dirty little mind thought of some rather interesting things to do with said hands, I simply scrunched my nose up. “Why would you want to spend your holiday cataloging a collection?”
He shot me a confused but controlled look. “Because that cottage belonged to my father, and I… wouldn’t mind a chance to say goodbye.”
Oops. I’d just come across as a callous bitch, hadn’t I? And this time, I hadn’t meant to do it.
Before I could suffer my way through an apology, Jeffrey stiffened. That’s exactly what he did – he stiffened. I saw every single one of his muscles lock into place one-by-one. “Surely there’s better things you can do with your time, James? You’ve already walked through the cottage. What exactly do you think you’ll find?” Jeffrey said.
By this time, Ms. Smith had already walked out of the room to fix some coffee and mints.
Which meant she wasn’t here to see that particular look in Jeffrey’s eyes and that particular note in his tone.
James, however, picked up on it. His cheeks locked into place around what had to be the world’s fakest smile. “Memories,” James replied in a blunt tone.
“I’m more than happy to accompany you there anytime you need to walk through the cottage looking for… memories,” Jeffrey commented. “But it would be unfair to interrupt Miss Diamond’s work.”
Though I wanted to put a hand up and tell people to stop saying Miss Diamond, I didn’t dare interrupt.
My curious mind was lapping this up.
There was more than family drama between these two boys – much, much more. Obviously Jeffrey didn’t want James walking through the cottage on his own.
And reading between the lines of what he was saying, that was because Jeffrey didn’t want James to find something.
That would be when my stomach made a loop.
Come on, no – it couldn’t be the postcards, right?
Of course it’s the bloody postcards, the other part of my mind answered. They were hidden in the frigging doors. Nobody goes to that much trouble unless they’re keeping something from somebody.
Just as the animosity between Jeffrey and James looked as if it was about to boil over, Ms. Smith walked back into the room, and both boys started to play nice once more.
I’d already mentioned that it was obvious Jeffrey had a thing for Ms. Smith – just as it was obvious that Ms. Smith had been James’ nanny.
Both of them looked like completely different men when she set their coffee and mints down in front of them.
And me? I leaned back and continued to watch.
I didn’t get to watch the full show, however, because James soon got a call.
He politely excused himself, wandered out into the hall, and had a conversation in low tones I couldn’t pick up on.
Several minutes later, he walked in, and either it was just my imagination, or there appeared to be a cold sweat across his brow.
He was standing a little stiffer, too, and there was a definite wary look to his eyes. “I’m sorry, nanny, but something’s come up. I have to go home to do some work.”
“Oh, that’s a pity. But it’s been so lovely to see you. Do drop in again.”
Though I wanted to believe that every single thing Mr. Prick did was fake, the smile he shot Ms. Smith wasn’t. No, it was tender.
Actually tender. And it made him – even if it was only momentarily – look like a completely different person.
But as soon as he walked away from Ms. Smith, he became the cold, good-looking bastard I knew he was on the inside.
He said a perfunctory goodbye to Jeffrey, who returned it. Then? Then Mr. Prick locked his attention on me. “I’ll be seeing you around,” he said in the kind of tone that told me this wasn’t a throwaway comment.
“Okay,” I responded – which, as comebacks went, was super pathetic, but was all I could come up with at the time.
Then Mr. Prick walked out.
The conversation quickly turned pleasant once more, but I didn’t forget James – nor the awkwardness he’d brought with him.
His exit gave me the appropriate opportunity to retire to my bedroom. I quickly closed the door, locked it, jumped down on my knees, ferreted around, plucked up the postcards, placed them on the carpet, and wondered what the hell was going on.
… What exactly had I found here? And, more to the point, what was it worth and to whom?
“Slow down. You serious? Sandy, you serious?” I said as I yanked open the door to my convertible, jumped inside, shoved the keys in the ignition, and pulled out so fast the tires turned up smoke.
“Head back home now. The motion sensors you installed in the kitchen are going haywire. There’s people in your house, James. Kick them out,” Sandy commented.
“Fuck,” I spat as I ended the call, chucked the phone on the seat beside me, and locked both hands on the steering wheel.
This was exactly not how I had intended to end the night. After finishing dinner, I’d had every intention of heading up to Grimsby’s to spend the rest of the night methodically going through his house.
After all, I knew Jeffrey and Miss Diamond would be at Ms. Smith’s for the rest of the night – meaning I wouldn’t have anyone to disturb me.
But that’s obviously not how I was going to spend this evening.
As I sped back along the narrow, winding roads to my house, I shoved a hand into my pocket and pulled out the penknife.
No, I didn’t honestly think it was going to be of much use against the caliber of house invader I would find when I walked in through my kitchen door.
“It better not be any of your boys, Jake,” I spat under my breath, ruing the existence of my brother.
Then again, Jake was never that subtle. If Jake wanted to fight with me, he drove right up to my house, kicked down the door, and punched me in the face.
Yeah, because we were those kinds of brothers. Not exactly the loving kind.
Rather than come to a screeching halt outside of my house, I parked along the street, got out, and surreptitiously looked at every single house and parked car. I ensured there was no one around before I leaped over the fence beside me and right into someone’s yard.
I kept an ear out for any dogs but fortunately didn’t find any as I slipped through the yard, found the adjoining fence, and jumped that too.
It took me five minutes to meander my way through the back properties until I reached the fence that would lead to my own house.
I slipped into my backyard, heart pounding in my chest, hands sweaty, but ready.
You’d think as an actuary, I wouldn’t have had that much experience with physical violence, but you would be wrong.
My father had trained me so well for situations like these.
So, despite the fact I wasn’t in the army and had never technically received any special forces training, as I warily approached my back door, I did so with the quietness of an assassin.
Sure enough, I could hear people making noises within. Though they were subdued, I caught a hint of gruff, low voices, and realized they had to belong to people who intended me no good.
I quickly ran through the list of possible enemies who could have a) figured out where I was, and b) ignored the law, broken into my house, and set a trap for me.
There were several prominent people on the list, but my brother wasn’t on it. Though the jerk hated me and had so many resources at his fingertips, he would make a field general envious, this wasn’t his style. This was far too subdued.
No, if I had to guess, it was either the Russians or Jeremiah’s men.
I got my answer as I grabbed up a mirror I’d specifically kept by the back door. Inching toward the window that looked into the kitchen, I angled the mirror until I could see within.
There were two burly, massive blokes crowded around the kitchen table, looking over something. They were in full action gear, from Kevlar vests to utility belts heavy with weapons.
He’d obviously heard I was going after the postcards again, and erroneously thought I’d already found them.
I pressed myself against the wall, ensuring I didn’t make a frigging sound. Even if someone had dropped an anvil on my foot, I wouldn’t have screamed – I wouldn’t even let my face twist with pain. My breath was nothing more than a low, slow, quiet pant, and I swore I even managed to muffle my heartbeat.
And I waited.
I’d already pulled the gun from the lock box in the back of my car, and it was tucked in the back of my pants.
Reaching around with a stiff shoulder, I pulled it out, unclicking the safety and steadying myself.
I also pressed closer to the wall, trying to pick up what was being said within.
I only caught a few snippets – time, and running out.
It was a concept I could appreciate. Because while Jeremiah’s men may have Jeremiah himself on their backs, squeezing them to find the postcards, now my worst nightmares were coming true. Though Sandy had assured me that no one else knew the postcards were back here, obviously we were wrong.
And if Jeremiah was on the case, the rest of my extended long list of enemies would join him sometime soon. My only option was to flush them out in such a way that they would never come back.
I knew I was a good judge of people. Knew I was observant enough to appreciate when someone was hiding something from me. And as I angled the mirror carefully, keeping the gun clutched in the other hand, I saw that the stances of the men at the table weren’t natural.
No, they were faking it.
Rather than drop the mirror, I pivoted around just in time as a massive dude appeared from the side of the house, swinging a steel pole right at my head.
I ducked, slicing forward with the mirror, catching the guy on the tip of his chin.
I heard a crack, and he jolted backward. At the same time, I heard the brutes in my kitchen thunder toward the back door.
I didn’t say a word, just shunted hard to the side when the guy with the pole pivoted and went for my knees. I pushed into a roll, cutting hard over the grass, staining my suit but not giving a flying fuck.
I didn’t start firing off round after round to give me cover fire and buy me some time. I wasn’t that stupid. Though this property was generous, we were still in the middle of frigging suburbia. Fire a single round, and people would call the cops. And I really didn’t need to explain myself to the authorities today.
I just had to get rid of these assholes, send Jeremiah a message, and find those postcards before they did my head in.
The guy swung toward me with the pole just as the two blokes in the kitchen spilled through the door.
Three on one was not good odds, especially considering I had a gun I couldn’t technically use and the three of these pricks were big enough that their fists could technically be categorized as weapons of mass destruction.
So I kept on my toes, jerking toward the side of the wall where I kept my ladder.
I skidded toward it. I shunted my left foot hard to the side, catching the ladder and sending it clattering behind me.
Fortunately it caught the massive guy with the pole just as he took a swing at me, and it wrenched the pole from his grip. It also struck him hard in the arm – hard enough that he fell to the ground with a rattling thump.
Rather than launch myself at him and take the time to ram his head into the concrete to show my displeasure at his sudden and unwelcome appearance, I simply swung to the side, grabbed the paint can I’d been using this morning, and wielded it like a freaking battering ram.
Jeremiah’s men were thankfully discreet enough not to go for their guns, which I could see prominently tucked into their utility belts.
Obviously they were content to try the silent option first. If that didn’t work? I had no illusion that they wouldn’t shoot me dead.
I, of course, did not want to be shot dead, so it was time to end this.
Though I wasn’t the most acrobatic of souls and certainly wouldn’t be seen on Great Britain’s Olympic gymnastics team anytime soon, I knew how to fall, knew how to roll, and was built solidly enough to flip. Which is exactly what I did as I ran at the wall, shoved up it, and pulled into a somersault.
Not the skills of your average businessman – but as I’d pointed out on so many occasions, I was anything but average.
The goons behind me had brawn on their side, but they certainly did not have the agility to match mine.
One of them jerked toward me, but before he could catch me, I swung my paint can around. It was half full, and the contents splashed about with a rattle as I slammed it into the guy’s hand, knocking it sideways. It was hard enough and I was swinging it with enough force that the guy spun to the side.
His friend was several steps in front of him, and launched at me, but I dropped down and kicked hard at his knees.
I wasn’t an idiot – and though my father had been a useless son of a bitch, he had taught me the keys to successful combat. There were three rules – and you never forgot them. Always stay out of your opponent’s reach until you had a clear line of attack. Never get into a tussle unless you have to. And never, never get angry.
Those three rules slammed around my head, governing my every action as I jerked backward before the guy could wrap his arms around my middle and begin a wrestling match.
I would have no chance if this turned into a rugby scrum. Three massive dudes piling on top of me would be lights out, Mr. Chase.
Though my ladder had tipped over and made a terrible clang, fortunately the people in the houses opposite either hadn’t heard, or didn’t care. It was just a metal clang, after all. When Jeremiah’s men started shooting, on the other hand, I imagined people would become quite interested, indeed.
But it wouldn’t get to that, I told myself for the 10th time.
Because I would end this.
I’d injured two guys, and that just left one more. The other two were hardly down and out, but they were no longer fighting fit – and would be much easier to defeat.
I headed toward the garden shed.
Lined up within were so many tantalizing weapons, from hedge trimmers to bolt cutters. They weren’t exactly tasers or assault rifles, but they’d still give me an edge.
But that would be when I ran over the garden hose. And that would be when the smart shit behind me suddenly lurched forward, grabbed it, and used it as a tripping line.
I fell forward, though I managed to control the fall and push into a roll, it cut my momentum.
The guy behind me lurched at me, jumped, and caught me. I felt his arms wrap around my middle like a tug chain stopping a boat in place.
I had time to suck in one last breath before the brute latched a hand around my throat.
Despite the fact my body very much wanted to give into a surge of adrenaline-fueled fear, I fought it. Do that, and I’d lose my reasoning faculties as my body gave way to instinct. And my reasoning faculties were the only things that were going to keep me alive.
Sure enough, I saw an opportunity, and I took it. As the guy wrenched an arm from around my middle and locked it against my throat, I squeezed my arm between his, twisted my thumb up, and jerked it up viciously beneath his jaw. It was at the exact point where his jaw bone connected to the soft under flesh of his neck. And it was precisely the kind of point where you didn’t want a pissed off businessman shoving his thumb.
The guy spluttered and jerked back, giving me all the room I needed to round my hand into a fist and slam it against his jaw.
By now, the other two brutes were on their feet, and they pounded toward me, ready to jump on top of me and lock me on the spot.
I launched my hands behind my head, kicked, rolled over onto my front, and shifted to the side. It was just in time as one of the guys leaped but missed me. I had the space to kick to the side, and the tip of my fancy Armani shoe caught him just above the knee. Rather than take the opportunity to get the hell out of the way, I scrambled to the left, picked up the paint can, threw my shoulder into it, and slammed it against his face. The thing connected with such a satisfying, rattling clunk, that I was pretty sure my brutish friends here would be spending the next several months at the dentist.
I finally jerked to my feet, barely missing the tip of the metal pipe as one of Jeremiah’s men swung it toward my throat. I felt it whistling past, and it sent a blast of air slamming against my cheek. Rather than jerk away, I brought the paint can up and slammed it into the pole as it was sailing past. I wasn’t fighting against his momentum – I was fighting with it, and that gave me all I needed to knock the pipe out of the guy’s hand, sending it spiraling out onto the unkempt garden lawn.
The guy shunted forward and aimed a fist at my head.
I watched his eyes – despite the fact it was dark, despite the fact this fight was breakneck. I watched them, and they told me where his punch would hit. And just in time, I shifted to the side, letting it sail past my cheek.
Immediately, I jerked forward and brought my foot down hard against his ankle, but not into the protected cap of his boot – I angled for the soft flesh just above his ankle instead.
It worked, and he let out a roar. Immediately, I doubled backward, brought the paint can around, and slammed it into the side of his head.
He went down like the proverbial sack of potatoes.
One down, two to go.
It looked like I’d have a chance, after all.
But that’s when the jerks went for their guns.
No more Mr. Nice Guys, apparently.
I thought quickly – blindingly fast. It was a skill my father had taught me, and one that saved my life. Before the two idiots could shoot me on this previously quiet suburban block, I kicked into the edge of the ladder beside me, using so much force, I spun it around. At the same time, I jumped so the other side of the ladder didn’t catch me in the legs. The two goons weren’t so lucky. They were both knocked backward. And in an instant, I was upon them, knocking them both out with the paint can.
By this time, the paint lid had had too much, and flew off, sending old white cream paint everywhere. Fortunately for me and my suit, it didn’t splash my way – but rather, it covered their faces.
They both spluttered, tried to wipe the paint from their eyes, but soon gave up, exhausted.
I knocked them out, dragging them all inside, tied them up, gagged them, locked my hands on my hips, closed my eyes, and sighed.
Then I called Sandy. Sandy arranged for a cleanup team, and me?
I had a frigging shower. The yard outside could be cleaned up later. The postcards? Shit, it was now becoming more important than ever to find them. If Jeremiah was on my tail, it was only a matter of time before dear brother arrived. And dear brother was nowhere near as incompetent as those three men had been.
Dear brother would use every considerable tactic at his disposal to relieve me of the postcards and send me limping back to my pathetic little life in London.
Another day, and I was back in the library.
But I was distracted. I had a bunch of stuff to research, but there was only one thing I was doing with my eyes. Fortunately I was surreptitious about it.
None other than Mr. I’m Such A Good-Looking Prick was in the library. Who knew that he could read?
I watched him out of the corner of my eye. Okay, if I was a subtle person, I would have watched him out of the corner of my eye. As it was, it was a surprise I didn’t walk right up to him and glower in his face.
Still, I was pretty sure he hadn’t seen me yet. Nope. He was absorbed by what he was doing.
Though it would have been satisfying to see him in the romance section, hunting out some Barbara Cartland, he headed straight for local history.
So much for Mr. Perfect Prick not being able to read; he was thorough and quick as he systematically shifted through several books, obviously looking for something.
He had such a fixed look of concentration on his face – one at odds with his usual smug charm.
“Don’t think you’re smart, you little prick. Life is not that easy. You don’t get to be super-hot and super intelligent. You’re just faking it.” I muttered under my breath. Or at least, I thought I muttered it under my breath. Because a school kid who couldn’t be older than eight suddenly made a startled noise and shot me a scandalized look.
“Whoops, sorry, no, I wasn’t talking about you,” I muttered.
The kid scurried past.
My heart sank as I realized I was a terrible person. Then I went right back to glaring at Mr. Jerkface.
I was relatively confident he hadn’t seen me, despite the fact I was harassing kids in the cooking section.
No, his expression was too fixed, and he was clearly too absorbed in what he was reading.
And, let’s face it, I’d say an arrogant jerk like him would take pride in the fact he wouldn’t notice women like me. If I grew a couple of inches taller, had a couple of hundred thousand dollars’ worth of plastic surgery, and practiced my simpering smile for a couple of months, maybe he’d deem to glance my way. As it was, I was a wall decoration. A snarling one. “What the hell are you up to?” I muttered, this time sure no old ladies or darling children were in earshot.
Mr. Prick stiffened, his eyes wide with the unmistakable look of someone who’d just discovered something.
I jammed my thumbnail into my mouth and started to chew, a flight of nerves tumbling up my back.
With a quick hand, Mr. Prick made some notes on a piece of paper he had pressed up against the back of a book.
Either he’d just been put off by the ugly people in the library, or his breath suddenly stuck in his chest with sheer excitement.
Once he was done making his notes, he returned the book to the shelf. Then he paused. Obviously thinking better of it, he tucked the book under his arm.
Not glancing at anyone, and moving with the purpose of a man possessed, he quickly left the library.
As soon as I was sure he was gone, I made my way up to the front counter, practicing my smile. “Sorry to bother you, but I was interested in the book that young man just took out.” I don’t know why I said young man. Either I was channeling an old lady vibe, or I was too embarrassed to describe him as the drop dead gorgeous Adonis god who’d graced our presence moments before but who had the personality of a weasel. A dead one.
The woman behind the counter frowned and shot me a confused look. “What young gentleman?”
Okay, she was playing coy. She wanted me to say it – wanted me to tell the world that he was a prick, but a perfectly attractive one.
My smile stiffened as I gave in. “The great looking guy – 6’2, fantastic chest, face like a movie star? He got out a book on local history. I was wondering if you had another? You see, I’m doing my Ph.D.,” I dropped the big guns.
… And the guns did nothing. She still frowned. “He didn’t get anything out,” she supplied with a shrug.
“Oh,” I replied. It was a falsely light reply. The kind of oh you say when you realize that the seriously good-looking prick had just nicked a book from the public library.
Wow, wasn’t this a turn up for the cards.
Before I could laugh and be thankful for natural justice, she frowned again. “What was the book?”
This provided me with an opportunity. The kind of opportunity where I could a) reveal the fact Mr. Prick was not just a criminal, but the soulless kind of bastard who stole public library books. Or b) I could keep it to myself.
I knew which option would be more satisfying.
But as I opened my mouth to reveal Mr. Prick’s non-civic activities, the receptionist was called away.
I hung around waiting for her, but I quickly realized she’d be away for some time.
I tracked back to the specific section Mr. Prick had been browsing in. Being the complete and thorough stalker that I was, I’d memorized exactly where he’d been pulling books from.
Tongue pressed between my teeth, I found the gap where the little prick had nicked the tome.
Grabbing my phone from my pocket, it did the rest. Even though this town was admittedly small, its library was still connected to the National Library.
So I looked up the catalog.
Typing in the names of the books categorized before and after the one he’d stolen, I tried to figure out what the name of the nicked title was.
And bam, in all of two minutes, I found out what it was.
An Illustrated Local History of Huddlestone with Annotations from the Great Bern Jenkins.
Shit, wasn’t that a mouthful.
I saved the link, returned my phone to my pocket, and walked out, deciding I’d give Mr. Prick a few hours’ grace to grow a conscience and return the book.
I was currently down a car – owing to the fact it still wouldn’t start. But Jeffrey had loaned me a push bike.
As I walked to my bike, I kept looking on my phone, trying to find a digital copy of the book. I found one in my local university’s online resource catalog.
“Boom,” I sniggered. “You’re too old school, Mr. Prick; everything’s on the net these days.”
With that satisfying thought, I got on my bike and started to ride.
Now, every single person in existence knows it’s not a good idea to try to read your phone while cycling a bike. You can almost get away with it in a car if you’re traveling in a straight line and the cops aren’t around. On a bike? Yeah, just go ahead and book your next appointment at accident and emergency.
I had pretty good balance, though, and let’s face it – I’d made a career out of being a doofus. So as soon as I hit the straight bitumen roads just outside of the local township that would eventually lead to Grimsby’s, I plucked my phone from my pocket, weaving the bike back and forth as I tried to balance with only one hand.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here?”
I was halfway through telling my phone to read me the book aloud, when I heard the crunch of tires right behind me. I reacted just in time, pitching the bike to the left, my phone flying from my grip as I let out a shriek. My bike tire hit a stone, and it pitched to the side, throwing me clean off. I rolled a good meter in the gravel until I came to a rest on my back. It provided me with an excellent view as I saw a swish, swanky black car speed off down the road.
Now, this wasn’t your usual country road – or at least, this section of it wasn’t. It was as wide as a landing strip. And there were no other cars around. I get that it’s sometimes hard to pass a bike, but you could have passed a semi trailer with room to spare.
My spinning mind told me one thing – that prick had swerved into me, not around me.
I powered up, ignoring my chafed and bruised limbs. “Asshole,” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I actually made a fist and shook it like some kind of comedic pissed off character from the 50s.
Said swanky swish black car slammed on the brakes. You know, didn’t press on the brakes as the car gave a slight shudder. Nope, slammed on them until I heard the screech of tires and saw the vehicle fishtail a good meter to the side.
I’d made a career out of speaking my mind. I was never the kind of girl to back down from a fight. At least, a verbal one.
A physical one? Yeah, I’d run in the other direction.
“Oh shit,” I swallowed my words as I teetered back on my feet, snapping my head to the side, wondering where to run.
The road I was on had a terribly steep incline leading down to a culvert made for a pipe that ran under the road. This was a damp, watery shit hole of a place, after all. I was pretty sure it rained 250 days out of the year. The rest, it snowed.
I got the urge to throw myself down the culvert, swing into the pipe, and hide there like the kids out of Jurassic Park.
I didn’t have to. Before the swanky car could slam into reverse, speed up to me, and show its displeasure in whatever way it saw fit, it stopped and drove off.
Before I could imagine that the entitled asshole inside had seen my tough expression and thought better of it, I heard another crunch of tires behind me.
A vehicle came to a stop.
I spun around, expecting some nice old couple out in the country for a drive. No, that’s what I wanted. The kind of old couple who’d soothe me with a cup of tea and scones and say there-there as they patted my back.
But that… oh crap… that is not what I got.
Instead Mr. Prick stopped on the generous section of gravel beside me and wound down his window. “You alright?”
When I didn’t answer immediately, he frowned, face crumpling in half as he did the last thing I wanted, and started getting out of his car.
He left the door swinging open and the keys in the ignition, obviously concluding that comforting this dumb broad would only take a couple of seconds.
I tugged my attention off the far end of the road. “I’m fine,” I said, glad my tone bridled with defensiveness and not fragility. Because, hey, yeah, I’d almost died at the wheel of some prick in a black BMW, but I wasn’t about to cry on this jerk’s shoulder.
Mr. Prick did it again. He shot me that confused look. It was the same look he’d kept shooting me last night at dinner. The one I imagine a scientist would use if they were trying to grow penicillin, but came back to look in their petri dish and discovered a potato instead.
He frowned again, this time the move more pronounced as he pulled a hand from his pocket – because, just like all guys everywhere, it was an unwritten code that he had to have at least one hand in his pocket at all times.
Still frowning, he pointed at my knee. “You’re bleeding.”
I swiveled my head down and saw the long slick of blood tracking from my torn jeans.
“Shit,” I muttered. “This is my only pair.”
I didn’t even bother to reply as I inspected the hole with a sinking heart. Though it was kind of grunge to go around with shitty denim these days, I wasn’t a grunge girl. Plus, I’d never understood why people liked drafty legs.
“I think you should pay less attention to your jeans and more attention to your knee. There are plenty of clothes stores in town. And that looks like you’ll need stitches.”
I sniggered. And while this guy had probably been spending his entire life perfecting his charming smile, I was really, really good at sarcasm. “Unlike you, Mr. Merc, I can’t afford to shop in any of the stores in town. I come from the real world,” I added before he could think this was a poor-me story.
Infuriatingly, he didn’t rise to the bait. He shook his head, muttered something under his breath, and shifted around to the back of his car. He opened the boot and pulled out something that looked suspiciously like a first aid kit. A seriously well-appointed first aid kit, kind of like you’d get on an airplane or an oil rig – somewhere things went boom a lot.
I frowned at it as he opened the back door of his car, set down the kit, unfastened it, and shifted through the contents with an expert eye.
“You don’t need to bother with me,” I said when I realized he was serious, and it wasn’t some show to get a pretty girl’s attention. Because, hello, it was just me out on this abandoned road, and I doubted this guy was so desperate for a date that he’d do chivalrous things on the off chance a hot babe would walk past. “You don’t have to do that,” I said slowly, pointedly, like he was a baby learning to understand English.
“I kind of think I do – because you’re just going to walk home on that, right? Or worse – ride.” He shot my bike a disapproving look.
“Yeah, I’m going to ride home.” I brought my arms up and gestured wide. “Because I’m fresh out of helicopters.”
Okay, it wasn’t the best comeback ever, but it still elicited a sarcastic pressed-lip smile from him, and that, in my books, was a point.
I stood there, bleeding, still swearing about my jeans.
There was another reason I was pissed off about losing these jeans – one I wasn’t exactly going to share with Mr. Million-Dollar Smile.
Sure, there may possibly be stores in this town I could afford, but none of them would carry my size. Because even the old ladies around here had been bred from rakes.
Bodacious size 16? Yeah, unless the farmers intended to dress their cows, nobody was going to carry denim that large.
It took me a while to realize he was staring at me, an alcohol swab in hand.
There it was, that kind of half-nonplussed half-confused smile on his lips again. “You really are more concerned about your jeans than your own body, aren’t you?”
I didn’t like the way he said that. He could have said knee – but he said body. Just another reason to hate this prick. “You wouldn’t understand,” I muttered.
He gave a chuckle. “Clearly. Aren’t you in a lot of pain? My ex-girlfriend cut her knee like that coming off a horse – she screamed for an hour.”
Awesome. That was an awesome story. For several reasons. First and foremost, I was clearly a lot tougher than Mr. Prick’s ex-girlfriend.
Second? His ex-girlfriend was an ex.
As soon as my stupid mind pointed that out, I almost rolled my eyes.
Drop it, I told myself in one of those firm tones you use against a naughty dog. Who cares if Mr. Prick has an ex-girlfriend? We don’t like him, remember? He’s a sanctimonious idiot.
“So, aren’t you in pain?” His voice became slower now as if he were talking to a young child. That, or someone with questionable mental health.
I finally removed my prying fingers from my jeans and fobbed a hand at him. “I have a high pain threshold. Plus, I’m always falling over. And seriously, you don’t need to do the dashing-gallant-knight-thing and fix me up. I can make it back to the town on this fine.” I patted my knee as if it were some rusty old car whose engine I was checking.
His smile – that half-nonplussed half-confused smile – it changed.
His brow scrunched, making him look less like an airbrushed picture on the side of a bus and instead, infuriatingly, more approachable. “What exactly is the gallant-knight-thing?”
I blushed. I tried to stop it. I tried to put the brakes on my circulatory system as it opened like a door to an unwelcome visitor.
I couldn’t. Let’s face it, my cheeks were ruddy at the best of times. Two rosy apples as my mom used to call them adoringly.
I was a picture of one of those plump German girls you see standing around lederhosen-clad boys in German beer ads.
Clearing my throat vigorously, I did this odd shrugging scratching move before ending with a haughty, haughty sniff. “Doesn’t matter. Point is, I can look after myself.”
He made eye contact. For way too long, excruciatingly long. Nobody looks you right in the eye for more than a few seconds. Not unless they’re an ophthalmologist or a serial killer.
And yet this guy managed to pull it off without the freaky edge. “Audrey, put your leg here.” He pointed to the seat.
His tone… oh, let me describe his tone: one part commanding general to one part late-night radio host.
It did the kinds of things to my stomach I would never admit to at the best of times.
Suffice to say, I did not immediately shuffle over and lift my leg up for him.
That would be wrong on so many levels.
I pouted. And yeah, I was not the kind to pout, but I’d been backed into a corner here.
He continued to point at the door until he let out a heavy sigh. The kind of sigh I imagined Atlas would give every other minute after shouldering the burden of lifting the earth and the heavens.
Call me a total sap, but I fell for that sigh.
“Fine,” I conceded, “but you’d better not ask me to take my pants off,” I muttered.
… Ah. Crap. It took me half a second to realize I’d just said that out loud.
My mind told me how he’d react. My mind told me with 100% certainty that this jerk would take the fantastic opportunity I’d just offered him and smack me down. Whether it be with a snide comment about my size or a disgusted look, he’d do it.
… But he didn’t. Either he didn’t hear – which I doubted, as I’d already confirmed he had great hearing. Or… what? He just let it go.
I can’t describe how intensely awkward it was to have him fix my knee up. Intensely distracting, too. I won’t say he had the hands of a god, but it was something close.
And yet, sweet though it was, it was over all too quickly.
After swabbing my knee and slapping on a particularly sophisticated-looking bandage, he looked up at me meaningfully. “Now, I’m going to offer something, but then you’re going to use your trademark sarcasm to reject it. But then I’m going to have to insist.”
Okay, several things were going on here. First, he hadn’t known me nearly long enough to appreciate that I had trademark sarcasm. Second? What exactly was he going to offer?
Before my heart could leap through my throat at the prospect he was now going to make fun of my taking-my-pants-off comment, he cleared his throat, straightened up, and looked me right in the eyes. “You’re not going to ride home. I’m going to give you a lift home. Now go on, say it – tell me there’s no way.”
I paused. I wasn’t used to conversations like this. One, he was jumping ahead, and that wasn’t fair. And two, honestly, I’d met this guy once, technically – and that was not long enough to pretend he now knew me.
He was also being irritatingly disarming. Though I would have relished the opportunity to leap down his throat and tell the sophisticated bastard that there was no way I was going to let him be the hero to my distressed damsel, now all I could manage was a funny look.
To which he pressed an eyebrow down low in a half wincing, half amusing move. “Is this… is this you being reasonable?” He joked.
I cleared my throat. “I suppose I can take you up on the offer for a lift. But it’s not because I can’t ride home. It’s because I probably shouldn’t do any more damage to Jeffrey’s bike,” I said mournfully as I turned over my shoulder and shot the mangled thing a look. When I’d come off my bike, I’d come off hard, and the front wheel looked bent.
Though I’d shot my bike a sad look, I still had my attention locked on Mr. Prick in my peripheral vision, and it was enough to appreciate his face stiffened.
There it was again – further evidence that this boy had history with Jeffrey.
Though I was usually subtler than this, sorry if I wasn’t in a subtle mood. “Exactly how do you know Jeffrey, anyway? And if you’re Grimsby’s son, why did your dad leave his cottage to Jeffrey?”
Mr. Prick didn’t react. No, Mr. Prick would think he didn’t react. Mr. Prick probably thought he had the kind of facial control only a special forces soldier could maintain. But Mr. Prick was wrong. Because, on the face of it, his expression didn’t change, but the muscles around his lips tightened, his cheeks paled ever so slightly, and his gaze sharpened like a knife.
This was probably where I should back down, apologize for opening his dirty laundry, and be thankful he was here to take me home. Instead? I just tipped my head to the side as if in curiosity. If my hair had been loose, I might’ve curled my fingers around some strands and played with them like a ditzy girl from a 50s flick.
Though I didn’t honestly expect him to answer, he cleared his throat. “Jeffrey was my father’s oldest friend. As to why he left the cottage to Jeffrey,” Mr. Prick said, his voice practically swallowing the word Jeffrey as if he were trying to chew it and spit it out, “I guess that was my father’s decision. He was a wealthy man. I inherited his primary residence in the village, and this cottage was insignificant compared to that.”
Good answer. Just not good delivery.
Though the cheeky part of me wanted to continue to push just to see what would happen, the rational side realized I still needed a lift, and I shrugged. Which was kind of a stupid move considering what he’d just revealed, but whatever. “What did your dad do, anyway?” I asked as the question popped into my head. It wasn’t that I was trying to torture Mr. Prick here – and if I suspected for a second that he had genuine feelings of regret for his father’s passing, I wouldn’t be forcing the question. But with just one look at the guy, it was clear as a neon sign that Mr. Prick had daddy issues the size of the moon. Plus, I was seriously curious here. I had to figure out exactly who Grimsby was. Only then would I know what to do with his damn postcards.
“My father had… various talents.”
“Talents? What, like tap-dancing?” I commented. As far as comments went, it was extremely left-field. Most people would give me a funny look and move on.
He raised an eyebrow. “No, tap dancing wasn’t one of them. He was…” Though I know he didn’t intend to, Mr. Prick trailed off, swallowing his emotion in a hard move that saw his Adam’s apple bob against the snug collar of his polo shirt.
Drop it, I told myself. Just drop it. This guy may be monumentally irritating, but don’t use his dead father against him. I kept telling myself that, but could I listen? No. And it wasn’t because I was trying to torture him – it was because I needed some freaking answers here.
I was also razzed, even though I wouldn’t want to admit that to anyone – especially him. I had just been knocked off my bike, after all. And though the sane, rational part of my mind wanted to tell me that the dickheads in the BMW had just been careless, a suspicious grain in me wondered if they’d swerved my way deliberately.
So I swallowed. “Jeffrey said the oddest thing in the car to me. He said your father was,” I couldn’t help but chuckle slightly, “a treasure hunter.”
Though I’d hiccupped with laughter at the mere mention of that possibility, that hiccup kind of got stuck in my throat when Mr. Prick shot me the realist look I swore he’d ever given in his life. For just a fraction of a second – just a micron in time – his whole face opened up. And it crumbled at the same time. His eyes widened, his eyebrows twitched, and he seemed to lose control of the fine muscles at the corner of his mouth.
But it didn’t last. He cleared his throat. “I think Jeffrey meant to say he was a collector,” Mr. Prick said in a clear tone as if he were trying to tell a ridiculously imaginative child that Santa Claus wasn’t real.
Me? My eyebrows twitched low over my eyes. “… Okay.”
“Treasure hunters don’t exist anymore, if they ever did exist. It’s a ridiculously romantic notion given to us by 50s pulp novels. Trust me when I say Dr. Livingston was nothing more than a story.”
“… Okay,” I managed again. “Though he was based on a real person.”
“Treasure hunting belongs to the realms of fantasy. Archaeology to the realms of science. No one in this day and age picks up a map, grabs a spade, runs halfway around the world, ignores sovereign borders, and digs up Spanish doubloons,” he said pointedly. And excuse me if it was extremely pointed. I mean so pointed, I could have cut myself on it.
I had a twitching moment when I realized Mr. Prick had just used almost exactly the same analogy I’d used, but then I quickly brushed it away.
I snorted. “I’m not an idiot, thank you very much. I am a historian myself, you understand that, don’t you? I don’t honestly believe in treasure hunters. That’s why I snorted when I suggested it,” I pointed out, using the same slow, sanctimonious schoolteacher voice he’d just used on me. “Point was, Jeffrey certainly believed it. You may not place much stock in my skills as a historian, Mr. Prick, but trust me when I say I’m relatively good at reading people. And Jeffrey believed what he was saying.”
“My name is not Mr. Prick. It’s James Chase. And I’d thank you to remember that, Miss Diamond,” he said, stretching my name in the same way he had last night and making it sound oh so stripper-ish.
I couldn’t help but snort again. “Don’t say my name like that – you make me sound like a cheap escort.”
Now it was his turn to snort. And I was more than a little surprised to see his nostrils rattle. Until this moment in time, my mind had convinced me that every single move Mr. Prick made was perfectly choreographed to make him look smooth and attractive. The rattling nostrils, however? Yeah, kind of broke the illusion. He looked like a bull that had been painted with makeup.
“Your words not mine, and,” he commented under his breath, “and as for Jeffrey,” he went back to my original point, his jaw naturally stiffening, “he’s an old man.”
“And? He’s not that old. He doesn’t seem senile. Granted, he’s extremely flaky, but he seems relatively lucid.”
I could see that the more I pushed, the more James was losing control. Though he returned one hand to his pocket in his trademark manly casual pose, I watched as the shoulder stiffened as if he’d suddenly picked up a heavy load. “Where exactly are you going with this? Why are you pushing? My father wasn’t a treasure hunter,” James said, and the way he said it was so damn packed with emotion that even a complete newbie at reading people would be able to see that he was lying.
Okay, I thought to myself. I really have to stop pushing now. At least, at this point in time. Though I wouldn’t admit it to Mr. Prick, my knee was starting to hurt. And though he’d seemed surprisingly competent for an actuary when it came to fixing up people’s injuries, I really thought I should probably book an appointment with a doctor.
And considering this asshole was my only hope of getting back into town without doing myself further injury, I took a breath. Though my natural inclination was to cross my arms, I let them stiffen by my sides. “Look, I’m sorry, okay. I was just repeating what Jeffrey said. I’m just… a little curious, that’s all,” I explained, hoping my voice wasn’t so defensive that he decided to whack me over the head with the first aid kit and drive off.
He took a moment where he straightened his back and then quickly and efficiently smoothed a nonplussed expression on his face as if he’d just realized he’d let way too much show. And, as if on cue, one of his hands went straight back into his pocket. “It’s irrelevant, anyway.”
I had no idea what that comment pertained to. Did he mean to say that my thoughts were irrelevant or that what Jeffrey had said was irrelevant? Or that his father and his exploits were irrelevant?
I wanted to go with the latter.
James busied himself with closing up the first aid kit and setting it back into the boot of his convertible. As he did, I frowned as I saw a lockbox neatly stashed in the back. It was heavy, made of durable steel, and had a combination lock at the front.
Though I wasn’t exactly an action aficionado, I’d seen enough cop films to wonder if it was a lockbox for a weapon.
But before I could get a good look at it, he closed the boot.
Not wanting him to see that I’d been spying on the contents of his car, I cleared my throat, turned around, and walked over to my bike.
“I’ll get that,” he said in that tone men use when they realize a woman is about to overtax herself and probably have a fit of hysteria at her sheer weakness.
I just plucked the bike up in one hand, turned, and shrugged. “It’s not an anvil, Mr.—” I began, but thankfully stopped in time.
“Mister?” He challenged.
I pressed my lips together. I wondered if he played like this with every woman he met. Then again, as soon as I thought that, I realized that the kind of women a good-looking prick like this would meet weren’t the ones to enjoy a verbal duel. When it came to that type of duel, I was more than certain Mr. Prick had significant experience.
Chasing that thought away before it could send a blush hurtling up my cheeks, I walked over to his car, the bike still in my hand, and I frowned, tilting my head to the side.
His car was one of those super fancy convertibles, and as such, was pretty damn small. Those corvette types were made for going fast on roads, not lugging around dead bikes.
The soft roof was currently up, meaning I couldn’t just chuck the bike in the back seat. But considering how old and rusty it was, I doubted he wanted it on his upholstery.
Or maybe he didn’t care so much. He walked up to his car, opened the passenger-side door, leaned over, and pressed something on the dash. His swanky roof opened and closed back with a swish.
“Just chuck it in the back seat,” he commented. Then he stopped.
“Don’t scratch the paintwork?” I supplied before he could finish his sentence.
“I meant extend your knee,” he replied smoothly. “Regardless of whether you’re willing to accept this or not, you’ve given it a good bashing. Try not to put any weight on it,” he said smoothly. On the word weight, his voice did not waver.
Mr. Prick was obviously done doing the chivalrous thing, as he didn’t demand to snatch the bike off me and put it in the back himself. He walked around to the front seat, got in, smoothed a hand over his polo shirt, then tapped a hand on the wheel.
I looked at him. I mean really looked at him. As if I were assessing him for the first time.
Just who was this guy? I knew his kind – I really did. They were the kind to laugh their asses off at women like me. Because in their tiny little heads, we weren’t happy – because we weren’t worthy of men like them. And the only thing that could make women happy was if they were accepted by him and his kind.
So why wasn’t he laughing at me? Why wasn’t he deriding me?
Would that come later?
Or was this prick an extremely complicated one?
Though my knee hurt, it was a flesh wound. It might need stitching, but I doubted the underlying cartilage and muscle had been affected that much. So I didn’t even grunt as I heaved the bike over the side of the door and gently placed it against the leather, careful not to scratch the paintwork, even if he’d protested that he didn’t care. Because you didn’t own a car like this if you didn’t care what it looked like. If he was truly the adventurous type, he’d go for a Land Rover Defender, not a frigging convertible.
When I was done, I brushed off my hands, opened the passenger seat, and sat down.
Oh, then the awkwardness set in.
It was surprising that it hadn’t set in sooner, really. After all, we had all the ingredients for awkwardness – two people who technically hated each other but were now stuck in the same freaking car.
He turned on the engine, settled one hand on the wheel, plucked a pair of reflective shades from a holder in the dash, and crammed them on his nose. But before he could turn the car around, his phone pinged. I was surprised when he didn’t continue driving, but instead stopped on the side of the road.
Again, I was pretty sure I knew his kind – and they were the type to use their phones wherever they were. On a plane? They didn’t care. On the underground in a packed train where everyone could listen to your conversation and no one cared? Again, they didn’t give a shit.
Weirdly, possibly for show, Mr. Prick was abiding by the rules.
“Right,” he said in a low tone. It wasn’t as if he could whisper, but it was close enough. Close enough that I wanted to lean all the way over and nestle my head against his phone. Close enough that I pricked my hearing as I tried to figure out who was on the other side.
But I couldn’t pick it up.
I could, however, pick up the fact that as the conversation wound on, Mr. Prick got stiffer and stiffer. It was with anger, though. It wasn’t with excitement.
“Right. I’ll go check it out now.” With that, he hung up. No goodbye, no nothing.
He dumped his phone back in his pocket, latched his hands on the wheel, then shoved his foot on the accelerator as if he were at the starting line of a Grand Prix.
“Shit,” I commented as I latched my hand on the door for support.
One of the problems in being in an open-top convertible when someone was going fast was the wind. And it whipped at my hair, sending it darting around my face. I immediately had to draw a hand up, lock it on my Alice band, and secure it there lest it ride down and choke me.
“What the heck are you doing?” I demanded. “Isn’t town in the opposite direction?”
“Yes, it is. Look, something’s come up. I’ll be quick.”
Though I wanted to tell him he was an asshole, again, I knew I had to hold my tongue. Because this was his car, and he was the one giving me a lift. If I said too much, I could guarantee he was the kind of asshole to set me down in the middle of nowhere and make me walk, despite my knee and despite his previous protestations that I don’t put weight on it.
So I held my tongue.
That didn’t stop me from clasping my hands together and settling them in my lap as if I were a pissed off matron about to read little Tommy his fortune.
Though I’d really only just moved into Huddleston, I was starting to learn the crappy back roads that led up into the wooded hills. And immediately, as Chase took a turn toward Hammersmith Hill, my eyebrows clunked down. “You’re headed to your dad’s old cottage?” I asked.
“But there’s nothing else on this road apart from the old overgrown picnic grounds at the top of the hill,” I said knowledgeably.
The wind was whipping my face, making me feel as if I was being flailed alive. Despite the distraction, I saw Mr. Prick partially turn toward me in my peripheral vision. “Jeffrey tell you that, did he?” Mr. Prick asked in one of those coldly efficient and emotionless tones.
“Did he tell you anything else?” Mr. Prick asked in the kind of voice that was trying way too hard to be nonchalant.
Mr. Prick didn’t push the point. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he kept looking at me for several seconds, and it was clear he was assessing whether I was telling the truth.
Oh, another secret, the curious part of my mind thought.
The rest of me? I kind of squirmed in my seat as if I was somehow finding the extremely soft leather and ergonomically designed chair uncomfortable.
At the rate Mr. Prick drove, it didn’t take that long at all to reach the top of Hammersmith Hill.
Though the part of me that adored intrigue should have been paying way more attention to Mr. Prick and his uncontrolled expressions, I found myself being equally distracted by the scenery around me.
It was kind of cool and yet at the same time kind of creepy. Jeffrey hadn’t been lying – it was obviously once upon a time a picnic area. But it was seriously overgrown. Almost as if it had been a picnic area one day and the next day people had just up and left and never touched a finger to it again.
There were picnic benches, an old fence for a playground, some areas that had once been lawn, and a few dilapidated old information boards.
“Jesus, what the hell happened here? Zombie apocalypse?” I commented, momentarily losing my mouth filter.
“The Council decided they no longer had the funds to repair it,” James said in the kind of automatic tone that told me he was repeating a learned fact.
“Bullshit,” I said. Because, hello – I’d lost my mouth filter again.
“I assure you, Miss Diamond, that’s what happened. Are you naturally suspicious about everything in your life?”
“No, I just have a head on my shoulders. I bet you something bad happened here,” I said, realizing I probably sounded like a conspiracy-theory nut.
“I’m not being funny, Mr… James,” I corrected myself just in time.
“And neither am I being funny – it’s Mr. Chase or James. Did you go to primary school? They teach you how to address adults, Miss Diamond? Or did you miss out on that lesson?”
I snarled. Reining in the part of me that wanted to verbally dismember him, I settled for clearing my throat as if I were taking the high ground. “I do not doubt that somebody told you that the reason this picnic area has been abandoned is because the Council can no longer afford the upkeep, but that makes absolutely no sense. Think of it. I’ve seen the people in town – and I’ve seen some of the manors around these parts. The rates the Council pulls in would be significant. No. I guarantee you, something else happened.”
He drew to a stop and kept one hand on the wheel as he tilted his head my way.
It was at that moment that I realized how close we were. Which was stupid, because I’d been sitting in the passenger seat of his car for about 10 minutes now. But there was something about the way he shifted his head that cut the proximity between us in half, making me feel as if I was sitting on his lap.
“Fine. Maybe you’re right. But that doesn’t mean something bad happened here,” he said in a sanctimonious tone that made me want to reach over and shove my fist down his throat or at least glue his lips together with Araldite. “It’s a bad trait in a historian to jump to irrational conclusions where a far more rational option is available.”
I clenched my teeth. “And what option would that be?”
“That due to its distance from town, this picnic area simply became unpopular. And over time, the Council realized that it was a waste of their funds.”
I brought my hands up and clapped. Way to go for sarcasm – I was very good at it. I’d been practicing my whole life. “It merely fell into disrepair, did it? Why does everything look as if it’s from exactly the same era? Look at the road, look at the signs, look at the fence, look at the picnic tables. They look like they’re roughly from the 80s. This isn’t gradually falling into disrepair – this is people cutting and running.”
He looked at me for several seconds, then he snorted. “You have absolutely no evidence,” he said, dipping his head forward and opening his mouth wide on the word evidence as if enunciating it very carefully would make me crawl back into my stupid little hole, “for your assertion.” With that, he got out of his car and closed his door.
Me? I got out of the car and just stopped myself from slamming the door. I was not a weak girl, and once or twice, when I’d tried to make a significant point with my friend’s car door, I’d dented it. Though this guy was being a sanctimonious little shit and I really wanted to put him in his place, property damage would be taking our strained relationship too far.
I locked my hands on my hips and stalked off, quickly reaching a sign that pointed to a short walk and then to a viewing platform. I pointed to it. “You want your evidence, Mr. Actuary? Those signs date from the 80s. You may have a degree, but so do I. That font and color was replaced in 1990. And as for the picnic tables over there, they’re also from the 80s. And so was that fence.”
He slowly crossed his arms. “Mr. Actuary? You may have a degree,” he pointed out in the same sarcastic tone I had quickly grown to hate, “but it certainly isn’t in creativity. Slapping Mr. in front of some potentially insulting words doesn’t actually hurt my feelings, Miss Diamond – it mildly amuses me.”
Mildly amuses him? Would he find it amusing if I beat him to death with his own shoe?
Rather than offer that, I stiffened my teeth into a seriously toothy smile. “Fine. Whatever. I’m not even sure I want to continue fighting you on this. If you want to think from your limited analysis that this picnic area stopped being used because nobody liked it, whatever. Me? I reckon someone probably got murdered here,” I said out of the blue, my mouth filter now well and truly on its way to the opposite side of the world.
He twitched. I swear he twitched. Then he straightened up as if his mouth had never moved. “That is a monumental assumption,” he said, but his voice drew out on the word monumental as if he was some professor who was about to pull apart my terrifying logical inadequacies in front of the class.
Me? I crossed my arms. “Whatever,” I defaulted to saying. “May not have been a murder,” I muttered under my breath as I realized it was time to end this childish spat, and I turned toward the viewing platform, “but something definitely happened here. My bet is it was nasty enough and dark enough that no one wanted to visit after. And subsequently, people plain forgot about it.”
With that, I walked toward the viewing platform.
Though I thought Mr. Prick would be stalking in the opposite direction, tilting his head up high, proud of the fact he’d just won, somehow he appeared at my side.
I didn’t do a double-take like a surprised panto actor, but I did raise an eyebrow. “What?”
“Don’t walk on the platform – it hasn’t been checked in years. The engineering may not be sturdy enough,” he commented.
… For my weight? My cynical mind inserted what I knew he’d wanted to say. I also looked at him, waiting, almost begging him to say it.
He didn’t. With that, he turned around and walked toward his car.
I watched him over my shoulder, narrowing my eyes. Again I was having to reconsider exactly what kind of prick this guy was. Though when I’d seen him, I’d been so sure that he was the cookie-cutter kind of good-looking, rich, smarmy asshole I was used to in London, now I wasn’t so sure.
And that? Would drive me crazy.
Mr. Prick turned his back on me, leaned against his car, plucked his phone out of his pocket, and started scrolling through it studiously.
Again his face stiffened. Hello, it was like someone injected starch into his veins.
Though I couldn’t stand there and stare at him, I still wanted to see what he was doing.
I knew I couldn’t ask – that would just lead to another verbal fight. And as fun as this was, I wanted to get home, get to a doctor, and get back to work.
Mr. Prick quickly became absorbed by what he was doing. And his expression? It changed. I swear his whole face changed. For a fraction of a second, he looked like a completely different person – somebody who didn’t care what others saw. You see, I have this theory with extremely good-looking people that they’ve trained themselves to only have a set number of expressions. Not only can they smile Instagram-perfect every single time someone even reaches for a camera, but they permanently hold their eyebrows a lot higher, keep their lips wider, and look like that Ben Stiller character in Zoolander shooting you the ‘Blue Steel.’
But right now, Mr. Prick… didn’t seem so fake. And that? Again that drove me crazy.
But then, oh, then Mr. Prick turned around, leaned into his car, opened the dash, and pulled out a book.
The stolen library book.
I couldn’t help but give a hiccupping type of snort. It was such an unusual sound that even the totally absorbed Mr. Prick looked up. He flattened his eyebrows over his eyes. “Did you just swallow a penguin?” It was not the funniest joke ever, but he seemed so satisfied with it.
I would do anything to stop a boy like him ever being satisfied. So I pointed triumphantly at the book. “Forget to check that out, did we?”
At first it seemed he didn’t know what I was talking about, then his left eyebrow inched up about a centimeter in the most challenging move I’d ever seen. It wasn’t intimidating so much as inviting – inviting me to make a mistake, that is.
I held my ground. “I saw you in the library, Mr… Chase,” I corrected, still knowing in the back of my head that I needed this guy to give me a lift, “and you didn’t check that book out. You stole it,” I said, taking so much satisfaction out of saying the word stole that I practically gave a giddy little laugh.
His eyebrow inched half a centimeter higher. “I borrowed it,” he said, but then his lips wobbled a little, “just not officially. I will return it.”
I snorted. “Just not officially? There’s a word for what you did – and it’s stealing. Let’s stick with that, shall we?”
He still had his phone in one hand and the book in the other, and he pressed them together as he folded his hands in front of his middle. He looked at me, and excuse me if he shot me one of the most analytical looks I’d ever received. It wasn’t exactly like being stripped down with nothing but his eyes, but it was close.
I continued to hold my ground.
“So you were stalking me, then?” he commented.
Though the word stalking almost derailed me, I shook my head and stuck my chest out, gratified when his eyes darted toward it. “It wasn’t stalking. I was already there doing legitimate research. You know, following library rules? I was being silent and not stealing books,” I said, enunciating the word stealing like it was the word evidence, “and who should I see, but Mr… Chase,” I corrected myself once more.
This seemed to amuse him – or at least it made one of his lips crinkle up ever so slightly. “I’m pretty sure that’s stalking. You watched me, did you? And what, Miss Diamond, did you learn?”
He was doing it again. Though I knew better – though I was a smart girl who never usually allowed herself to be baited – I couldn’t hold myself back around this prick.
So I let it all spill. “I saw you steal that book. I marched right up to the receptionist, figured you hadn’t booked it out, then walked over to the shelves, did a little bit of sleuthing, and figured out which book it was,” I said, oh-so-proud of myself.
His eyes narrowed. It was the slightest move, but as I said before, I was pretty good at assessing people – and right now James was changing his assessment of me.
He cleared his throat. “Did you… ah, share your observation,” he chose his words carefully, like a shady lawyer trying to get their patently guilty client off, “with the receptionist?”
“If you’re asking whether I ratted you out, the answer is… no. I figured I’d give you several hours to return the book. You see, Mr. Chase, I’m not a complete fat bitch.”
“I didn’t think you were,” he said quietly with the kind of automatic tone that told me he wasn’t lying. But then he got that suspicious look in his eye once more. “So after not telling the receptionist I’d… borrowed the book without permission, you figured out which book I borrowed, did you?” he asked in a clearly judgmental tone.
I bit back once more. Seriously, if I’d given myself the time to think, if I’d given myself the time to step back and appreciate that he was manipulating me into telling him everything I knew, I would stop.
But I couldn’t stop. Not around his self-satisfying smile.
“The Illustrated History of Huddleston,” I pointed out. I pushed my hand into my pocket, pulled out my phone, and tilted it from side-to-side. “And I’ve got a copy. You see, I got one for free through the University. That’s the great thing about a library – you can borrow legally.”
Again he didn’t move. In fact, his face was now so set it was as if he was a model from Madame Tussauds. “I see,” he said eventually. “But I think you’ll find in this instance having the print copy is a little more useful.”
It was my turn to have my eyebrows clunk down. “What?”
He was obviously done with the conversation, because he tucked the book under his arm, shoved his phone in his pocket, and walked away.
Me? I was only getting started.
The cogs in my brain kicked around and around. “You mean there are handwritten notes in that version, don’t you?” I concluded.
Though he’d been walking away over the rough gravel of the car park, his shoes skidded a little, but then he continued to stride toward the picnic bench.
“Hey, let me see the book,” I said as if I were a kid who’d realized they wanted to play with the popular kids after all.
“I advise you to go sit back in the car. I told you not to put any weight on that knee.”
“You’re only an actuary – I’m a qualified historian. Let me know what you’re looking for, and I’ll see if I can help,” I added. It was an offhand comment – just a bunch of words kind of meant to confuse him into letting me look at the book.
But he reacted to them. He stopped, arched his head over his shoulder, and looked at me with such a calculating look it was as if he were assessing whether I was a spy. “How do you know I’m—” he began, but he stopped.
“Looking for something?” I shrugged. “Why else would you be up here?”
He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. It could have been my imagination, but I swore I could see through his eyes into his mind, and I swore I could appreciate that just as I’d realized he was controlling me through his sarcasm, the more he let this conversation wind on, the more he inadvertently revealed.
I took a step toward him and nodded at the book. “I’m very good at finding things,” I commented. “I’ve already found some pretty random stuff at your dad’s cottage like post—” I began.
For several reasons.
One, I still hadn’t told Jeffrey about the postcards. Two? All it took was the word post, and James’ eyes became two pinpricks of pure interest. His body stiffened, reminding me of a marble carving in a Greek temple. “What?” His tone – I couldn’t even begin to describe it. It wasn’t so much tense as every other emotion under the sun. Intrigue, angry, expectant, happy, sad – you name it. It seemed like all of the things in Mr. Prick’s life that made him complex suddenly coalesced together in this one moment.
So I backed down like the deer in front of the headlights. “Post,” I said with a shrug. “Unopened letters,” I added, stupidly letting my eyes dart up to the right.
“… Post,” he said, and for the first time, I couldn’t read him. Not at all. I had no idea what he was thinking, which was pretty alarming as I’d been able to read him like a book until now.
I swallowed hard. “Did I say something wrong? I… they were just letters. They were just… in a weird place, that’s all,” I said, stuttering over every word as I cobbled together the worst lie ever.
“Where did you find them?” he asked, and the cold, efficient James was back. But unlike the cold, efficient, emotionless James with the daddy issues I was used to dealing with – this was a completely different man. Excuse me if he looked like he’d been trained by the best spy agency in the world. He was like a robot as he was questioning me.
It threw me. And when I’m thrown I start to make random shit up. “In the fireplace,” I said, because that was the only thing that would pop into my head.
“In the fireplace?” he questioned, and there was a demanding edge to it, and yet he wasn’t raising his voice or making it angry in any other way. No, it was demanding in the same way a surgeon’s scalpel demands to be let in by simply cutting away any defense you have.
So I swallowed again. “They were, you know… up in that little bit,” I started to move my hands around like I was a conductor trying to distract him, “on the inside of fireplaces,” I pressed my fingers against my lips, tapping them as if I were trying to force them to make good words come out as opposed to the babbling shit that was currently slipping from my tongue, “on the inside. You know where there are a few bricks sticking out?”
Jesus Christ, I sounded like an idiot.
And James knew.
“Why were you looking up there?” He used that same demanding tone.
I crumpled with every second. “I tripped over,” I began. Most of my excuses began with I tripped over. While that usually worked, it did not work on James.
“You tripped into the fireplace and fell onto the internal masonry bricks, did you?”
I squeaked. Hello, it was as if somebody had stuck an adorable little baby mouse in my throat and then proceeded to strangle said adorable little baby mouse.
“No,” I managed, voice high and yet shaking like a surly teenager who was being contrary just for the sake of it, “I tripped near the fireplace, but put my hand out onto the mantelpiece,” I managed.
“And you fell through the mantelpiece inside the fire?” he said slowly, his words suggesting sarcasm, but no sarcasm was present in his tone. It was still so goddamn cold and efficient, it felt as if I was being questioned by a loaded gun.
“No,” I squeaked and then proceeded to give the most high-pitched ridiculous giggle in the world, “I just… banged against the mantelpiece so hard that I heard… something sort of fall down,” I said, realizing I was onto something. “Ash must’ve fallen from the chimney, and it dislodged the letters. They fell into the open fireplace, and I found them. That’s how I found them,” I added, despite the fact I’d already said that and it was implied by my entire story. Still, I’d done it – I’d concocted a possibly okay, maybe plausible story.
Did it work on James?
I had no idea. Because it was at that point that he received a phone call.
Though he kept his eyes on me, his gaze darted to the side as whoever was on the other end said something of considerable interest to him.
This offered me exactly what I needed – a chance to escape.
Though previously I would’ve done anything to get my hands on James’ stolen library book, now I scuttled away like a crab who’d almost been caught.
Fortunately this picnic area was overgrown and unkempt – and large enough that it didn’t take me too long to get out of sight.
It was only then that I slammed a hand on my belly, leaned forward, and breathed hard. “What the fuck just happened there?” I whispered to myself.
What the hell? All it had taken was the word post, and Mr. James Chase had flipped. Gone was the troubled daddy’s boy and in his place was some kind of mega cold spy.
I wasn’t an idiot. It hadn’t been the word post that had gotten his attention.
No, it was postcard. He’d thought I was going to say postcard. And hey, he was right – I had been going to say postcard.
But now? I had every intention of going home and hiding those freaking postcards in a safe. What the hell were they? And why was James so damn interested in them?
A lot of things were swirling around in my head right now, and all of them were potentially insane. No, I hadn’t just lost my head. I was beginning to suspect something that I knew was completely foolish.
What… just hear me out – but what if Grimsby had been a real treasure hunter, and those postcards – which had been cleverly hidden in his doors – were treasure maps?
There, I’d said it. Completely barmy, but I had to get it off my chest – even if all I did was admit it to myself.
I kept a hand flattened on my chest as I continued to breathe, but it didn’t take all that long to calm down.
Despite the fact James had had a complete personality switch, I wasn’t terrified of him. Nope – he was still the same good-looking, confusing prick I’d met at Ms. Smith’s. Now he just had more back story. As if he already hadn’t been intriguing enough.
I brought up a hand and started to scratch it through my hair. I also began to walk randomly through the long grass. It wasn’t long until I had my hands clasped behind my back and a ruminative look on my face as I walked back and forth across the overgrown grass.
As I tried to get my thoughts straight, I tripped over something.
No, unfortunately it wasn’t a zombie – and unfortunately I couldn’t bring its dead hand back to Mr. Prick, slap it in his face, and tell him it was evidence.
It was a rose stem. A dead rose stem. One that had belonged in a bouquet. A bouquet that had shriveled up some time ago.
Not 30 years ago mind you – maybe just a few months ago. The petals were well and truly brown, and the dehydrated leaves were tipped with mold, but the cellophane covering hadn’t started to degrade yet. I could still make out the sticker of the florist who’d made up the bouquet.
Frowning, I leaned down, balked at the pain that ran through the cut on my knee, ignored it, and reached a hand toward the roses. Rather than pick them up, I kind of prodded them as I assessed them from every angle.
That would be when I noticed there was a letter. It was sealed in an envelope tucked into the inside of the decaying bouquet. So it had been partially protected from the rain.
As I gathered the courage to touch the yucky dead roses, I plucked the letter out.
The paper didn’t disintegrate, and though ink had spread over the envelope, I had high hopes that the letter inside may still be legible.
I was right. Carefully, breath stuck in my throat, I opened the letter, pulled out the paper, and opened the old, water damaged letter over my knees.
I know what you’re thinking – what on earth am I doing getting so distracted by a random dead bouquet and a letter? Hello, I had much bigger fish to fry.
But that was just how my brain worked. If I saw a new clue, a new intrigue, I would get completely distracted.
Though most of the words were legible, key letters were missing, and I had to tilt my head to the side and subvocalize to try to figure out what had been written.
It was an apology. To someone named Mary. The writer of the letter was apologizing for never making up for his loss in time, whatever that meant. And they promised that someone – a name I couldn’t quite read – would make up for the writer’s wrongs.
I tilted my head way to the side, trying to figure out exactly what name was written there.
I could make out an S at the end, and something that vaguely looked like a J at the beginning of the word.
“J-s,” I said.
“James?” I suddenly heard from behind me.
I yelped as if someone had stabbed me in the back. I also, stupidly, put too much pressure on my knee. And it chose that exact moment to buckle. I was on a slight hill, and though the bit I was on didn’t have that sharp an incline, it descended quickly after that.
And me? I fell forward.
But I didn’t fall head over heels.
James, as quick as a raptor plucking a bird out of the sky, lurched forward and caught my arms.
He couldn’t stop me from falling completely.
He shifted the momentum of my descent until the very worst thing imaginable could happen.
No, he didn’t split the earth in two and kill all of humanity. No, it was much, much worse than that. Because it was much, much more embarrassing than that.
As James pulled me to the side, he tripped backward, and I fell on top of him. It wasn’t a face-to-face, chest-to-chest, knees-to-knees ordeal. Nope. I fell forward, he fell back, and dear James got a face full of my bust. And I do mean a face full, because it isn’t exactly modest.
You know in the movies where couples destined to get together hilariously fall on top of each other in a scene that will ultimately change how they view one another?
Yeah. That’s for the movies.
In real life, I just smacked a guy I barely knew in the face with my tits.
Not a good look.
“Shit,” I had the time to say, the exact pitch of my voice like I’d just killed his puppy.
I pushed off him as fast as a bullet being propelled from a gun.
I wasn’t at all surprised when he jerked to his feet just as quickly.
I’d moved so fast, I almost lost my balance, teetered backward, and continued the same fall Mr. Prick had so spectacularly not saved me from.
He jerked out a hand, but I regained my balance.
“Don’t fall,” he said, his tone exasperated.
“I’m good,” I said in one of those super-high, falsely calm tones that tells everyone around you that you are so not good.
Though the front of my top had been pulled down after I’d smashed this guy in the face with my cleavage, I didn’t dare bring a hand up to neaten my blouse. Do that, and I’d just draw more attention to what had just happened.
I cleared my throat and muttered a very quick, very light, “sorry.”
He cleared his throat too, in a much manlier move. “Nothing to be sorry about,” he said, or at least he got halfway through saying it before the pitch of his voice changed and he appreciated exactly what he was saying. “I mean, I didn’t mean to,” he began, swallowing his words like a fish gulping for air as they’d been plucked from the ocean.
Though I wanted to appreciate the fact that I’d just made Mr. Prick of all people awkward, I really needed to change the topic before I died of embarrassment. “Check out this weird letter I just found,” I said, hoping the letter would be the equivalent of a carrot to a donkey. “I found this dead bouquet of flowers. There was a letter inside. Most of it is still legible. Apparently it’s to someone called Mary. Some dude apologizing about wasting her time or something. Apparently it’s okay, though, because J-S is going to fix everything,” I said. Sorry, I mean babbled. I spat my words out one after another as if I were laying down fire in the face of a retreat. Which, come on, I was.
But it didn’t work how I thought it would.
Rather than James taking the opportunity I was giving him to salvage this situation from embarrassment, he stiffened. His cheeks blanched as if I’d just slapped him. He also jerked over, got down on one knee, and plucked up the letter from where I dropped it.
I stood as rigid as a pole, not because I was worried he would accidentally overbalance me, but because again he looked like a completely different person.
Back when he’d been questioning me about finding “post” in his dad’s house, James had been the coldest, most efficient spy. Whenever I mentioned Grimsby, he was the most complicated boy in the world. And when he was just hanging around being his usual freakish but charming self, he was nothing more than the epitome of suave.
I swore he was nothing more than a little boy.
He plucked up the letter, his hands actually shaking as he read it, his eyes darting so fast from left-to-right they were like a blur.
Though the only emotion I’d shown toward Mr. Prick so far was either embarrassment or irritation, now I let that drop as a compassionate look crumpled my brow. “You okay?”
He didn’t answer.
He stopped, let the letter drop, and stared at the dead roses for several seconds.
It was almost as if he had to remind himself that I was still here. He jerked his eyes toward me. “Where did you find this?”
I didn’t bother playing with him. I pointed exactly to where I found it. “It was in the grass. The letter was tucked inside. The roses look… I don’t know, a couple of months old – 3 to 4?” I suggested, even though he’d not asked for my opinion on how old this decaying bouquet was. Again I was just trying to lay down verbal cover fire. Though, to be honest, the embarrassment was slipping from my mind as James’ out-of-proportion reaction was taking my attention.
He took several seconds, forcing deep breaths into his lungs before a measure of his cool calm returned. He didn’t turn to me, though.
… It took me a while, but then J–S started to make sense.
I was an idiot.
So this letter… had been written by his dad, right? Though I didn’t know exactly when Grimsby had died, I knew it was at least more than two months ago but couldn’t be more than six. Which was about the same time frame as this dead bouquet.
What exactly was James meant to fix?
James swallowed hard and turned to me. “Thank you,” he said.
He actually said that. I’m not making it up. He looked me in the eye and said thank you.
I wasn’t stupid enough to ask for what – that was obvious.
“Is this… what you were looking for?” I asked carefully – and yes, I was fully capable of being careful. It was simply a skill I didn’t often use.
“No,” he answered, and it was clear that he was being genuine. “But this is… interesting,” he said, and on the word interesting, he did it again – he looked like a little boy.
The cogs in my head moved faster and faster. It was obvious to anyone and everyone that James had massive issues with his dad. It was just as obvious that he didn’t give a hoot that his old man had died. So maybe he thought his dad had never loved him. And maybe this letter – which had promised that James would fix whatever the hell Grimsby had gotten wrong – maybe that was all the evidence James needed to realize his dad had loved him.
Though this sounded decidedly soap opera, it was the best theory I could come up with.
It was probably close to the mark, as James brought up a hand, locked it over his chin, and let his thumb dig hard into his cleanly shaven jawline.
For a few seconds, he stared at the bouquet, then he shook his head. “I’ll take you home now,” he commented in a far-off tone.
I was done pushing. No more pushing for today, in fact. James had clearly reached his limit. “Okay. You don’t need to, though. If you’re looking for something, I can go and sit in the car,” I said honestly.
“It’s fine – I can come back later.”
“No – look for whatever you need to. It seems urgent. I’ll get in the car,” I said, and with that, I walked past him, kept my eyes locked on the grass so I could give him some privacy, and I didn’t turn around once.
He didn’t call me back.
I sat in the car for about 20 minutes before he returned.
He had something in his pocket. It was big, it was round, it was hard, and it hadn’t been there before.
He also had a triumphant look on his face.
As soon as he sat back in the car, I heard the rustle of paper from his chest pocket and saw the corner of the water-damaged letter sticking out.
Though I darted my eyes over to it, I quickly shifted them away as I locked my gaze on the windscreen. I could’ve asked if he’d found what he was looking for – but that was obvious. Instead, I busied myself with neatening my hair. “Thanks for the lift,” I said after a while as the silence became simply too awkward.
“Don’t mention it,” he said as he started the car, reversed, turned around, and drove away.
Though I usually abhorred silence, I was sensitive enough not to break it again as we drove back to town. I was super sensitive when we passed the dirt track up to Grimsby’s house. Because anyone would be able to see that James stiffened as we approached it. As we passed, he jerked his head to the side, and though his eyes were hidden behind his reflective shades, I could still see the top of his head, and his forehead furrowed and peaked high.
Shit. This guy was so complicated. Though part of me – the vindictive part – wanted to believe he was a sanctimonious bastard who was worthy of my full fury, the compassionate side of me was starting to realize he was so much more complex than my simple thumbnail sketch of him permitted.
Deep in my thoughts, I heard a car behind us. I heard it, because it was traveling as fast as it possibly freakin’ could.
I didn’t even have time to jerk my head around, raise my fist, and swear at the lunatic, commenting to James that idiots didn’t know how to drive in the country these days. Nope. Because the car drew parallel with us. Parallel. Hello, we were on a country road, going around blind corners – and the prick beside us drove right up alongside as if he were trying to overtake.
But he didn’t overtake.
Before I knew what was happening, James shoved the gearshift into fifth and accelerated, the engine roaring like a jet plane.
I’d felt James traveling fast before – he wasn’t exactly light-footed. But this – this was him driving as fast as he possibly could.
“What the hell?” I had time to stutter.
The car next to us continued to drive in parallel, but James pushed his car to the limit and shot ahead.
The other car didn’t toot its horn, stop trying to overtake, and fall back. Hell no. It revved up and tried to pull out once more.
“What’s happening?” I demanded, knowing full well that my tone shook so wildly I sounded like that hysterical damsel I was trying so hard not to be.
James didn’t answer – I doubted he could. He was paying so much damn attention to driving that his face was locked with concentration. His body was hunched over, his hands gripping the wheel tightly as he kept darting his hand toward the gear stick and shifting down and up as we took the corners so quickly it felt like I was in a pinball machine.
I didn’t dare ask what was happening again. Because my slow mind had finally caught up.
The jerk in the black, nondescript car beside us was not just driving dangerously. He was driving dangerously for a reason. To run us off the road.
I will repeat that – he was trying to run us off the road.
I was not an exciting girl. I was an interesting girl, a smart girl, a plucky girl, a strong girl, a capable girl, and a vibrant girl. I was not an adventurous girl. I was not the kind of chick who got a kick out of adrenaline-fueled, dangerous situations. I was completely the opposite. I was so averse to risk, economists everywhere would laugh at me.
So I had not signed up for this, and I was not prepared for it.
There was nothing I could do, anyway. James was at the wheel, fortunately, and he was astonishingly good at driving.
There was one other thing I could be thankful for – this road was unused.
… Which meant the assholes in the nondescript black car had been after us, right? Despite the fact this scene was unfolding at a breakneck pace, I still had time to think that – still had time to let that thought send a cold wash of dread sinking hard into my gut.
I gripped the door with all my might, squeezing my eyes shut to protect them from the barrage of wind pounding through the open roof.
From the sound of skidding tires, changing gears, and roaring engines, to the smell of exhaust and burning rubber, my senses were in overdrive.
But somehow, somehow James started to pull away.
As soon as we reached the end of this road and hit a T intersection, he zoomed around it so freaking fast I thought the car would flip. It didn’t, and he yanked on the wheel just in time to regain our balance. We jolted down onto the bitumen with a thump that saw me jump a good several inches out of my seat.
It was just in time, because the road we joined had a tractor on it. While we managed to get in front of the tractor, the nondescript black car behind us wasn’t as lucky. The tractor was large and was taking up most of the room on the road, and the nondescript black car was too large to pass.
In other words?
We were free.
Had I… had I just been in the first car chase of my life?
Not ideal. Not freaking ideal.
Though I wanted to pretend that the bastards in the black SUV hadn’t been the same bastards who’d broken into my house the other day, that pretense was nothing more than a wish.
They were still after me. I hadn’t sent them a strong enough message.
Worse, I’d pulled Miss Diamond into this mess.
Or had she pulled herself into this mess?
I’d managed to slip away from the assholes following us, and I deliberately joined the larger, more populous roads that led into town. Though the assholes after me were a lot of things, they were still secretive. They would hate to have our little spat drawn into the public eye.
There were two things that surprised me about the situation, and only one of them was the fact that Jeremiah’s men were still on my tail. The other?
Miss Diamond still hadn’t said a word. Ever since the car chase had begun, she’d just been sitting there as silent as the grave as she’d clutched the door with all her might.
It took until I pulled up on the side of the road a block away from Ms. Smith’s house until she turned to me.
I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, but it was a strange mix of shock, anger, and plain confusion. “What… what exactly just happened there?” she asked, her usually strong voice nothing more than a squeak.
Though I was often good at thinking on my feet and coming up with solutions to complex, risky problems on the fly, I found myself lost for words.
I knew the number one rule in this business – and no, I wasn’t talking about my primary job of being an actuary. I was talking about my… hobby. And the number one rule in said hobby was to keep your activities secret. The fewer people who knew what you were doing, the better.
So I took a breath. “It’s not what you think,” I managed.
She looked at me, her expression as raw as the damaged skin on her knee. “And what exactly am I thinking?” she asked, no sarcasm in her tone – just a genuine question as she invited me to put thoughts in her obviously addled brain.
I tried to smile. Even I could tell an ordinary person would be able to see it was a fake smile. Miss Diamond? Though she was a lot of things, she was clearly good at reading people. And now was no different. Though she was still surprised, she found the time to press her lips into a frown. “Whatever you’re going to say next, it better be good,” she warned.
I felt the necessity to draw my hands up in surrender, which was something I never did.
Around her? Well, apparently, I had to invent a new playbook. She was unlike any woman I’d ever met. “Look, it wasn’t…” I trailed off, trying to figure out what I was going to say.
She got there first, as usual. “A car chase?” she said, voice disbelieving but still strong. “Because that’s what it felt like. I got a good look at that car, and I’m pretty good with automobile types, but I had no idea what it was. It didn’t have a badge, obviously had fake rego, and was a completely nondescript matte black. Oh, and he was trying to run us off the road,” she said, voice punching so high at the end, anyone down the street would be able to hear us from our open convertible.
With one hand still grasped on the steering wheel, I leaned in, trying to shush her. “Can you please keep your voice down? The entirety of Huddleston does not need to know what just happened to us.”
Though I was already leaning in, she locked a hand on the door, pushed forward, and leaned right back. And no, I really doubted she was angling for a kiss. The exact look in her eyes could melt any man and crush his soul. “And what exactly did happen, James?” she demanded.
She had to be really pissed – as this was the first time she’d actually called me by my first name and not some variation of her pathetic insults.
Though I could’ve leaned back – though I should’ve leaned back – I didn’t. I kept facing her, my jaw clenched, the muscles around it twitching as I reacted to her aggression. And yet, at the back of my mind, I realized it was perfectly appropriate. At least it wasn’t hysteria. At least she wasn’t crying on my lap. Then again, maybe I’d be able to deal with that better. Because despite the fact Miss Diamond had obviously just been in her first car chase, while she was obviously frightened, she was channeling all of that fear into anger – and that reminded me far too much of myself for comfort.
“Look, those men… have a little bit of a dispute with me. It’s nothing to worry about, though. I doubt they got a good look at you,” I added, only realizing a second too late that it was an awful thing to say.
Sure enough, her eyes boggled wide. “Why? As, if they had, they would now be going after me? And you’re a bloody idiot; of course they got a good look at us. We were in a frigging open-top convertible.”
I winced, momentarily losing the fine control over my expression that I’d developed my whole life.
And of course, of course she noted. Though she could hardly push closer to me in the car, she managed it. Any closer, and I imagine she’d try to bite my nose off.
I took a tense breath. “Look, it’s nothing for you to worry about,” I began.
“I’m sorry, nothing for me to worry about? We were just chased through the back streets of an apparently sleepy town by a nondescript, falsely registered psycho who tried to ram us off the road. This type of shit doesn’t happen in real life. Or, when it does happen, it doesn’t happen here.”
This time I managed to keep an even expression, because despite her apparent intelligence, Miss Diamond was completely wrong on both fronts. This type of shit happened all the time – especially to men like me. And as for Huddleston? It was the scene of far more crimes than Audrey would be able to imagine.
“Just what is going on?” she demanded once more.
“Look, the less you know, the better,” I said. Excuse me for sounding like a frigging spy, but it was the only thing I could think of saying. It was also the worst possible thing to say to somebody like Audrey. Though I didn’t think her eyes could widen any further, I was dead wrong, as they looked as if they would pop right out of her skull and fall in my lap.
“You can’t say that,” she began.
That’s when I heard somebody calling my name. “James, James, dear, who have you got in the car there with you? Oh, it’s Audrey,” Ms. Smith came trotting up behind us, waving her hand jovially. She also had a particular kind of smile on her face.
I wasn’t an idiot. The other night when Nanny and Jeffrey had invited me over for dinner, she’d obviously been trying to set me up with Audrey. Which was never, ever going to happen for so many damn reasons. Primarily because Audrey Diamond was just too much for me to handle. And no, that wasn’t a subtle hint about her weight – it was her mouth. She wielded it like a sword.
I could hardly turn around and snap at dear, sweet Nanny to back off and stop playing Cupid. I straightened up, sat forward in my seat, passed a hand down my polo shirt, smoothed a smile over my face, opened the door, and got out. “Nanny. How are you going?” My tone was neutral, friendly, calm – completely opposite to the warning grumble I’d given Audrey seconds before.
Though I was facing Nanny with a charming smile, my back was still itching with nerves. I had absolutely no idea what Audrey would do. Hey, despite the fact I made my life out of predicting risks and attempting to manage them, Audrey was somebody who was far outside of my skills. There was a 50% possibility that she would continue to scream at me that we’d just been in a car chase – or that she’d just let it drop.
As I heard Audrey’s door open and shut, my gut clenched. She walked around to us. And… she smiled. “Did you manage to get all the preserving you were meant to do today done?” she asked sweetly.
And it was a sweet voice. Easy to listen to, kind, friendly. In other words, completely, 150% different to the tone she habitually used on me.
“Yes, dear – thank you for asking. But – oh no – what happened to your jeans?” Ms. Smith said.
Audrey didn’t even bother to look down at them. “I shredded them coming off my bike. Speaking of which, do you think Jeffrey is going to be awfully angry? But I stacked it, fell off the bike, and kind of mangled the wheel. I’ll pay for it, but I think it will be out of action for a while.”
… Really? She still cared more about the bike than she did about her knee? It was a deep gash, and though I doubted she’d done any lasting damage to the cartilage and muscles beneath, it would still sting like hell every time she moved. But Audrey didn’t appear to give a hoot as she stood there and looked sorrowfully at Jeffrey’s mangled bike.
“Oh no. It’s an old bike. He won’t mind at all. You two should come inside for lunch,” Ms. Smith said without a pause. Though Ms. Smith had that distinct smile on her lips that told me she was trying to play Cupid yet again, this time I was going to accept. Because I really needed to get Audrey alone to explain what the heck had just happened. More than that, I had to tell her to keep her mouth shut. This was not a game she wanted to be pulled into. Nor was it a game she could afford to pull others into. Out of everybody in this shit hole of a town, Nanny was the only person I cared about, and if Audrey inadvertently brought danger to her door, there would be hell to pay.
I opened my mouth to accept, but that would be when my phone rang. I didn’t even need to look down to see it was Sandy. He would be the only person calling at this time.
I offered Ms. Smith a polite smile, didn’t even make eye contact with Audrey, and shifted around the car and further down the pavement for some privacy. “What is it?” I asked without so much as a hello.
“You got the compass yet?” Sandy asked, and there was a real demanding edge to his tone. Though Sandy was usually the kind of unflappable man not to be razzed by anything, now he couldn’t hide the emotion twisting through his tone.
Naturally, I stiffened. “What’s going on?” I demanded, ensuring my tone was low enough that it couldn’t travel, even to Miss Diamond’s acute hearing.
“We’ve been hacked.”
I paled. “Sorry?” I said breathlessly.
“We’ve been hacked,” Sandy repeated once more.
“By whom, and what did they steal?”
“By whom? Your guess is as good as mine. What did they steal? The information I managed to gather on the location of the postcards.”
Though I was already pale, I felt all the rest of the blood drain from my face as if I’d just become a corpse. “You mean they know about Grimsby’s cottage?” I half whispered in a constricted tone that made me feel as if someone was trying to strangle me.
“Yes. You’re no longer on holiday now, James. You have to go in, find those postcards, and get out. I can’t guarantee how much time you’ve got left. He’ll be coming for you.”
Sandy didn’t need to explain who he was. There was only one person. Only one person.
Jake Grimsby – my brother.
Shit. The game had just taken a turn for the worse.
I quickly excused myself from both Nanny and Audrey and drove off. Though I could feel Audrey’s eyes drilling into the back of my neck as she obviously wanted me to explain what the hell was going on, I didn’t have the time.
I made a beeline to Grimsby’s cottage. The clock was ticking down, and if I didn’t find the postcards in time… it would all be over.
Though the car chase with Jeremiah’s men had distracted me from what I’d found at the old picnic grounds, I hadn’t forgotten the rumpled, water-damaged letter in my front pocket.
The letter from my father. The letter to my dead mother. The letter that purported to say that I, James Chase, would fix all of his mistakes.
The letter that suggested one thing – one thing that could slowly erode and shatter my worldview.
My father had loved me, after all. More than that. He wanted me – not my brother – to inherit the family business.
It was the morning. I was in bed. And I had a lot to think about.
I had more questions than answers. And I could blame that squarely on Mr. James Chase’s broad shoulders.
He’d left yesterday without a word and without bothering to tell me what had gone on.
But it was still time to take stock. One of the things about being a historian is attempting to craft a picture from limited facts. And though James clearly thought I was an unreasonable girl who jumped to ridiculous conclusions, I wasn’t. I just had great intuition.
And right now that intuition was screaming at me that something big was happening here.
Yesterday had been a big day. A stupidly, ridiculously big day. After all, not only had I fallen off my bike, but I’d been saved by none other than Mr. Perfect. And I was forgetting something, wasn’t I?
The freaking car chase.
I rolled out of bed – I was particularly good at this. It had absolutely nothing to do with my weight. It had to do with years of practice of getting up for early morning shifts in a fiendishly cold house. You learn to conserve body heat however you can.
Reaching for my seriously expensive silk dressing gown, I shrugged into it as I crammed a nail in my mouth and started chewing. I had a lot of chewing to do; there was a lot to think about.
First things first, I grabbed my phone from its charger and started leafing through the notes I’d made.
… Underwhelming. Last night as I’d furiously texted to myself in the dark, I’d thought the observations I’d been making were gold.
Now I looked at them with a pout and chucked my phone on the bed.
“Okay, girl,” I locked my hands on my hips and shot myself a serious look in the mirror, “you can’t exactly ignore this. There’s too much weird shit going on in this town. First, everyone’s fascination with Grimsby, then the postcards, now a frigging bona fide car chase. What the hell is going on here?” I asked myself as I blinked hard. Because it had been a car chase, right? That nondescript black SUV had honestly been trying to drive us off the road.
My stomach chose that exact moment to rumble ominously. It sure as hell wasn’t hunger.
I was here in this poky little town to study – not to run around getting myself into God knows what kind of adventures.
Because, seriously, what happened on the TV wasn’t fun in real life.
After I had spent a good five minutes commiserating on my bad luck, I pulled on some clothes, settling for some no-nonsense tights, an attractive mini, a great belt, a good shirt, and a bandanna headband.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Mess!
Wrong. Due to my considerable curves, belts often suited me better than most. And a bandanna – as long as it was one of those cute polka dot affairs, just made me look like a pinup from the 50s.
I gave myself the thumbs up in the mirror, grabbed my phone, and wandered downstairs.
It was early, and I didn’t honestly expect Ms. Smith to be up.
I was wrong.
I also didn’t expect her to have a guest. And hey, I was wrong about that, too.
Jesus Christ. It was him.
It was Mr. Prick.
It was 6:30 in the morning and Mr. Prick looked like he was dressed to go out to a function at 10 Downing Street.
He was wearing a bespoke woolen suit with hand-stitched details on the lapels and a fine shirt with a silk handkerchief in his chest pocket. All seriously fricking over-the-top given he was seated at a chipped wooden dining table at the crack of dawn.
I stopped in the doorway, considering him like one of the Ghostbusters might consider a hideous sewer apparition.
Kind of scary, but crap, while I had the skills to deal with this prick, did I really want to do it at 6:30 in the frigging morning?
“Oh, dear, you’re up,” Ms. Smith said, a rather unmistakable note of surprise in her tone.
I had to play this very carefully. Though my mouth wanted to snap at him and ask why the hell he was here, my brain reminded me Ms. Smith had been his nanny, and he had every right to be catching up with her. Oh, yeah, more than anything, I wanted to grab him by the collar, pull him into the other room, and ask what the hell had happened yesterday. If, of course, the smarmy prick was going to tell me anything useful. One look at him, and I knew he would just fob me off like he tried to do in the car yesterday.
So I stood there, steaming, but in a thoroughly awkward way.
Mr. Prick had just finished, and he pushed his plate away politely, shooting Ms. Smith the kind of smile that would send any woman to her knees. Well, apart from me. Because I was immune to his charms now, wasn’t I?
There was no point in falling for common criminals.
I walked over to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down, folding my arms in front of me. Way far back in the deep recesses of my mind, I cheered my luck. I usually rolled out of bed and crawled down to breakfast in my pajamas.
I didn’t think I could suffer any more monumental embarrassments in front of this guy, so the fact I was fully dressed was a win.
“Oh, I just remembered I have to do something in the kitchen. You two have fun catching up.” Ms. Smith pushed up from the table and trotted out. I saw the side of her face as she did, and there was an unmistakably satisfied smile on her face.
… Was Ms. Smith trying to set me up with him? Though we had one thing in common – we were both lippy – that was it. Otherwise we were worlds apart.
Also, he was a common criminal who not only got into car chases, but pilfered library books too.
Ms. Smith shuffled off, looking super pleased with herself as if she was a cupid who’d just fired her arrow and could totally retire now.
Mr. Prick leaned back in his seat. It was that long, practiced move you see in the films sometimes. You know the kind I’m talking about – the kind of lean a mafia boss would do. It was designed to intimidate you, but it wasn’t going to work on me.
Before he could start, I got there first, ensuring my voice was low enough that it didn’t carry to the kitchen. “Okay, Mr. Prick, why are you at my house eating my breakfast?” I glowered.
Mr. Prick made a face. “For the last time, my name is not Mr. Prick, weirdly. And Ms. Smith kindly made breakfast for me.”
“Just answer the question,” I put extra special effort into scowling. “Why are you here? You don’t look like the kind of stray waif to need a free feed. And though I appreciate she was your nanny, catching up at 6:30 is cruel and unusual.”
Though I thought he would continue to play with me, he didn’t. He spread his arms wide and shrugged. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought you might like a little information, considering what happened yesterday.”
You know when you think you’re over something? Or at least the immediate emotional effect of it?
Well, as horrible as it had been to be knocked off my bike and get into a car chase yesterday, I’d been trying to downplay it ever since.
Now my heart raced, and I knew my cheeks became pale.
There was nothing I could do to hide my reaction from Mr. Prick.
He ducked a little closer over the table, voice low, gaze darting to the side, obviously to check that Ms. Smith was still in the kitchen.
When he swiveled his gaze back to mine, he somehow did so with the drama of a full orchestra striking its big note.
“I might have… understated things yesterday,” he said, voice muffled.
I frowned, leaning in as I tried to pick up what he’d said. “Sorry?”
He brought up a hand and lightly scratched his short nails over his lip and chin in a thoroughly manly move. “You might be in a little trouble, Miss Diamond.”
Slam. Though he was still sitting across the table from me, it was as if he’d just struck me across the jaw.
My lips wobbled open. “You said they wouldn’t have gotten a good look at me,” I said, realizing how impossibly stupid I sounded. “Who – who the hell are they, anyway? You didn’t tell me anything yesterday. What the hell is going on?” I crammed my words out so quickly, I had to stop to suck in a breath.
Mr. Prick quite rightly looked as if he’d just seen a train speed past. He even gave his head a shake. Well, before pressing a terrifyingly grim smile over his lips. “I told you yesterday, the less you know, the better.”
It was my turn to shake my head. And I did a thoroughly good job of it. “Oh, hell no. You got me into this trouble; you’re going to tell me how to get out of it.”
His cool calm broke as he stuttered through an exasperated laugh. “I did not get you into this situation. You got you into this situation,” he stabbed a finger my way. “You’re just… collateral.”
Oh, fuck off. Had he actually just said that?
“For the last time, who the hell are these guys and exactly what kind of trouble am I in? Either you tell me, or I go to the police.” Though my arms were already crossed, I tightened them until it looked like I was trying to squeeze my bust out of my eyeballs. Which was an entirely unpleasant image, but one that summed up my growing anger perfectly.
I thought he’d keep pushing, keep pointing out how much of an idiot I was. Instead, with a deep, quick breath, he brought his hands up. “Fine. I’ll let you know… what I can. But I’m serious,” he flicked his head up and made enduring eye contact, “the less you know, the better.”
My stupid stomach chose that exact moment to sink. Not sink like a stone, sink like the freaking Titanic. Because, seriously, though I was angry, I couldn’t deny the exact look in his eyes. It was a look that told me he was serious.
Cheeks becoming sallow and slack, I took a breath. “What exactly are you involved in? It’s not drugs, is it? Or weapons?” My eyes started to boggle wide as my imagination got the better of me. “Oh, God, this is some kind of setup, isn’t it? You’re going to use me to fence your stolen goods.”
He snorted, brought a hand up, and shook his head. “If you mention that stolen library book again, so help me.”
“I thought we were referring to it as borrowed for a short time?” I supplied with a snarl of my own.
“Whatever. Look. Let’s say that I… am after the same thing as the gentlemen who drove… carelessly around us yesterday,” he said, making his words so damn confusing, even a team of lawyers would take a week to figure out what he was saying.
“What do you mean you’re after the same thing? What thing?” I demanded.
“A thing of… considerable monetary value.”
… As explanations went, it was about as illuminating as a pitch-black room after midnight. “What? What are you after?”
He winced. His expression changed, his eyebrows peaking, his gaze growing distant, and his mouth solidifying into a hard line. It was the kind of expression people gave when they were on the cusp of making a critical decision. He looked up at me sharply, and it was clear he was assessing me, clear he was trying to figure out whether I was worth divulging the truth to.
I kept my arms crossed and my disdain locked on him in full. Because even if he chose wrongly – and decided not to share with me the exact details of what was going on, I was going to pull the truth out of him, tooth-by-tooth and nail-by-nail.
He let out a deep, shaking breath, and he clearly made up his mind. Breathing hard, he shoved a hand into his pocket and brought something out. He handed it to me. “I shouldn’t be doing this. Because this is me bringing you further into this situation. But you’re not exactly going to give me any other option, are you?”
I shot him what I hoped was a knowing, somewhat superior look as I reached for the paper.
But I didn’t get the chance to grab it up. No. At exactly that moment – the worst moment possible – Ms. Smith trotted back into the room. James acted like he’d just been sprung, scrunched the paper up, and shoved it back in his pocket, all the while smoothing a devoted, good-boy smile over his face.
“Oh, I just knew you two would get on.”
Neither James nor I said anything.
James pressed his hands into the table and rose. He cleared his throat and smoothed a smile over his perfect cheeks. “Thank you so much for breakfast, Margaret; it was delicious. As usual.”
“Oh, James, you’re such a charmer. When will we see you again?” She made extra special effort to say we.
James flashed his gaze toward me. “I’ll pick Audrey up for lunch today,” he said before pulling down his suit jacket, straightening his tie, smiling at Ms. Smith one last time, and walking out.
I should’ve shouted at the prick that I had absolutely no intention of going out to lunch with him, but I was still kinda overcome by everything that had just happened. What the heck had been on that piece of paper? More to the point, just what kind of trouble was I now in thanks to this good-looking bastard?
I turned to head upstairs to put some shoes on. And for some stupid, silly, girly reason, I was smiling.
I did not want to spend the whole day waiting for a guy I kind of mostly hated but was still a little intrigued by to pick me up for lunch so he could continue to lie to me and prevaricate about what the heck was going on. Because he wasn’t really going to take me out to lunch. He’d probably pick up some egg sandwiches or something, chuck them in my face, then twist some barely believable lie.
Suffice to say, I couldn’t sit still.
Though my bike was completely and totally trashed, Ms. Smith had kindly let me borrow her car. An old mini, it puttered along like an old donkey, but it sure as hell had charm.
And hell, it had wheels and a combustion engine, which was exactly what I required. Straight after breakfast, I piled into the car and headed back to Grimsby’s.
There was something different about the drive today. I’d found it so quaint previously. From the oaks and elms pushing up along the sides of the road, to the persistent wildflowers trying to grow in the gravel. It was exactly the kind of place you could imagine adventure. Something suitably Tolkien, perhaps.
Today? Today I looked right past the quaint moss-covered logs and darling old elms.
My eyes kept darting from left-to-right, left-to-right as I obsessively surveyed the rear vision mirror for any trackers.
Yeah, I was referring to them as trackers, like I was in the frigging army.
When I made it to Grimsby’s, pulling up the long driveway, my tires grinding and crunching over the rough gravel, my stomach was in my mouth. Which was stupid. Right? Paranoid. Or maybe it wasn’t stupid and paranoid. Maybe I should be taking this entire situation a little more seriously. I’d been in a frigging car chase yesterday. And though James was dancing around the fact masterfully, he’d still admitted that something serious was going on.
I shook my head, parked, and headed out into the yard.
There was a brisk breeze outside, and I huddled into the collar of my jacket.
Though Mr. Grimsby’s house had seemed quaint on the other occasion I’d visited it, now… now I shoved my hand into my pocket and clasped it protectively over my phone, despite the fact there was no reception up here. “It’s all in your head, girl,” I tried to tell myself.
But my pep talk was entirely and completely useless.
By the time I made it up to the front door, pulling my keys from my pocket, every single crack of a twig or tweet of a bird made me want to chuck myself in the bushes.
I shoved the keys into the lock.
But that – that was when I realized it wasn’t locked. Shit. It wasn’t even closed. The door swung open with a seriously ominous creak.
I immediately wanted to throw up my breakfast as a punch of fear slammed into my gut.
I took a shaking gasp and locked my hand over my mouth. I expected the worst. I expected the place to be trashed. Or worse, some criminals would be inside currently in the process of trashing the place.
I should have run screaming for the car.
I did nothing.
… Which proved to be the sensible option. Because the place wasn’t trashed and there weren’t criminals sorting through Grimsby’s old papers. There was a criminal, though.
“James,” I exclaimed, slamming a hand over my heart and willing the thing to slow. “What are you doing here? How did you get in here? You almost gave me a heart attack.”
He was seated at the kitchen table, poring over a book. He shifted his head up and looked at me, his cheeks paling.
“How did you get in here? Have you moved on from nicking library books to breaking and entering?”
“No, Audrey, and can’t you give the library book a rest already? I will return it. But to answer your question, I have a key; that’s why you can’t see any signs of forced entry,” he pointed out as he gestured to the door.
“Who gave you a key?” I asked defensively, using the tone you would if somebody foolishly gave the village pyromaniac some matches.
He closed the book he was working on, stood, and crossed his arms. “It’s irrelevant. But what is relevant is what the hell you’re doing here. I clearly told you this morning that I would pick you up for lunch.”
I gestured wide with my hands. “It’s not lunch time, buddy. Plus, unless you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who’s meant to be searching through your father’s collection for gold,” I said, words a little florid on account of the fact this guy was pissing me off so much.
He did it again – his face stiffened as if somebody was trying to turn every single muscle into metal. “Sorry? What do you mean searching for gold?” There was such a pointed quality to his tone that I couldn’t ignore it.
My arms were still up, still spread wide, and I shot him an exasperated look. “What exactly is wrong with you? Sure, from the moment I met you, I realized you were a prick, but you’ve obviously got other issues going on. I’m not actually searching for gold. It was a colorful analogy. Though you don’t seem to have a lot of respect for your father, he was obviously a great collector. There are some very valuable books in this place.”
James’ expression was as stony as a quarry. “You never met my father, and you have no right to comment on what relationship I did or did not have with him.”
It was a smack down, but I was in absolutely no mood to be smacked down.
“You want to talk about rights, Mister? Then why don’t you do me the basic frigging dignity of telling me exactly what’s going on and what kind of trouble I’m in,” I said, and though my voice was punchy and strong, it wavered on the last question.
And, even though I didn’t think it would, it had an effect on him. His jaw stiffened, the little muscles at the sides twitching. “Fine. First things first, move your car,” he said with a snap.
I shook my head. “What?”
“Did you park out front for everyone to see?” he demanded.
I gave an exasperated shrug again. “Who might that be precisely? This cottage is on a practically deserted road. Plus the driveway is a 500-m nightmare. Nobody’s just going to drive past and see me parked out front.”
“Hand me your keys,” he said as he shoved his hand out.
I just stared at it.
When he kept his hand held out, I gave in, shoved a hand into my pocket, and handed the keys over.
That’s when he stiffened. “These aren’t your keys – these are Ms. Smith’s keys, aren’t they?” His voice shot up high as tension twisted it hard. “What kind of an idiot are you? Why would you take her car?”
“Because my car’s in the shop and she offered. What the hell is going on?”
“You’re an idiot, that’s what,” he snapped viciously as he pushed out of the door, jumped in the car, and proceeded to move it around the side of the house.
He squeezed it next to his own car, which was parked right out of the way behind one of the sheds.
I marched right outside and stood there, hands on my hips, waiting for him to turn off the engine and jump out.
Then we faced off against each other like a pair of stags ready to lock horns.
“What—” I began.
He brought up a hand. It was wide, it was tensed, and it matched the deadly look in his eyes perfectly. “You should not have brought Ms. Smith in on this.”
“Now you listen to me, asshole,” it was my turn to spit, voice rattling low, “I don’t even know what this is. You haven’t told me anything. You want to act like a responsible person? Then give me some fucking information. What kind of trouble am I in? And how the hell do I get out of it?”
His jaw sure was stiff, still twitching as if someone had shoved electrodes into his teeth. But finally he nodded a stiff head toward the house. “Get inside, and I’ll tell you everything. Keep your voice down low out here.”
Though I wanted to snap at him that that was crazy considering we were in the middle of nowhere, I shot him a deadly look and walked into the house with him.
He closed the door behind him and actually locked it.
And though my stomach could have kicked at the realization this good-looking prick could be a serial killer, it didn’t. Despite everything he’d done, I still felt safe around him. No, hold on – I had to qualify that. I didn’t feel safe around him – as the world seemed to go to pot whenever he was with me. But I did not for a single second think he would actively hurt me in any way.
He pulled out a chair from the table and motioned for me to sit. I stood in front of the door, arms crossed. “Let me get this straight. Your father was a treasure hunter – not that I want to believe that such things are possible, but I suppose I can stretch my mind to appreciate that it could, maybe, possibly be true. And he left something, didn’t he? Maybe it’s a treasure map, maybe it’s treasure itself,” I said, having to clench my jaw every single time I said treasure, realizing it was so freaking foolish. But I had no option here, did I? Because questions were stacking up, and this was the only version of events that made any sense.
“Obviously he was a successful… treasure hunter,” I managed. “And he found something that everyone else wants, right? And now you and those assholes in the black SUV are all looking for it, right? And none of you have any intention of following the law to obtain this,” I swallowed, “treasure. Right?”
James looked at me. Though I expected him to chuck his head back and laugh, possibly pointing out in that same sanctimonious tone he used yesterday that I was a foolish, foolish girl, he didn’t. Instead? Oh, he did something much worse. He nodded. I swore I could see every single stiff muscle in his neck as they all shifted to confirm my story.
I swallowed. I paled. I felt like my arms had turned to jelly, but I still stood my ground.
Though the rational, cynical part of my mind wanted to point out that James just had to be joking, the part of me that was good at reading people pointed out that the emotion crumpling his face was genuine.
So I swallowed again. “What are you after?” I said flatly. “And what does it have to do with time?” I added.
It was damn clear that musty old letter I’d found at the picnic grounds had been written by James’ dad. And it had promised a Mary – whoever she was – that James would fix the broken time or something.
I had to be onto something, because rather than look at me with a seriously confused expression, James… just sat. It wasn’t that his muscles turned weak and he’d grown bored with me. It was that, momentarily, he looked overcome. He looked down at his hands, which were tightly clenched on the table, then finally back up at me. “You know, you’re too smart for your own good. Which is not a compliment,” he added with a growl.
I swallowed again, but every time I tried to push down the tide of emotion climbing my throat, it just climbed higher. “What is that meant to mean?” My voice shook.
“It means that yes, my father was a treasure hunter. Though I wouldn’t exactly use that term. That connotes romantic adventure, right? Exactly the opposite of what he was. In the war, he trained as a British Intelligence officer. After the war, he spent some time with MI6. You see, during the war, he made a name for himself as a particularly good reconnaissance officer. He would be sent behind lines to follow troop movements, but above all, to figure out what the Nazis were doing with all the art, gold, and valuables they were pillaging from the Jews in occupied territories. His entire purpose was to keep track of where they’d stockpiled valuables so they could be returned after the war. And as I said before, he was very good at his job. Problem was, one of the major stashes of stolen art ended up in East Germany. After the war, he had no chance of getting it back. That is, until, the wall fell.”
“Your father was in the war? Just how old are you?”
“He had me and my brother late in life. But aren’t you more interested in what I’m revealing?” he challenged.
I nodded. Of course I was fucking interested. “What happened after the wall fell?” There wasn’t a hint of derision anywhere in my voice. Maybe there should have been – maybe reason should’ve come to the fore and told me that this was plausible, but it was probably just a distraction. My reason? Oh, it’d crumbled away, giving into my intuition instead. And my intuition kept pointing out that James’ expression was everything but manipulative. Quiet, somber, nostalgic, sad – yes. Controlling? No.
“After the Berlin Wall fell, my father was already an old man. He retired from MI6, and his role in the war had been largely forgotten.”
“By everyone but him,” I guessed.
Again James looked at me and shot me the kind of stare that told me I was far too smart for my own good. Though there would’ve been a time when I would have rejoiced at receiving such a compliment, now I simply swallowed again.
“Yes, you’re right – everyone forgot about the stockpile except for my father. That would be when he started making regular trips to Germany.”
“Relieved them of their treasure, did he? Why didn’t he go to the German authorities to help them track down the original owners?”
James leveled his gaze at me, and I watched as his jaw hardened like a diamond. “Because my father was a bastard,” he said clearly.
I wasn’t expecting the raw emotion or the honesty, and I blinked. For some reason I opened my mouth to defend Grimsby but stopped. I didn’t know anything about him. And though automatically I didn’t want to believe anything the prickish James said, there was no doubting he believed what he was speaking of.
… And yet… and yet, I swore it had to be more complicated than he was suggesting. Everything was around him.
James reached a hand forward and started drumming his fingers on the old wooden table. “My father removed all of the treasure over the next 10 years. He was a history professor, and he used his contacts with German universities – unbeknownst to them – to smuggle the artworks out. Then he hid them.”
My stomach twitched. Because something was starting to click in my head. It was a conclusion that told me why I’d found postcards in the doors. Why I’d been in a car chase, and why James was so determined to get this sorted.
“All around the world,” I managed with a swallow.
He had his mouth open, about to say something, but stiffened. His eyes narrowed. “Yes – all around the world. Now tell me, Sherlock Holmes, how you figured that out? Why wouldn’t you think they’d just be in this house?” he said as he shifted his hand to the side and indicated the kitchen with a stiff sweep of his hand.
I swallowed, and even someone with absolutely no social intelligence and no ability to read other’s emotions would be able to see my fear. As for James? As for James who had the kind of searching, sweeping gaze that could pry back your deepest secret? Oh, he flattened his hand on the table and rose. “It’s your turn now, Audrey. What’re you keeping from me?”
I actually squeaked. Come on, I was such an accomplished woman when it came to having arguments – but as James rounded on me, I felt like I shrunk to the size of a pin. I brought my hands up and waved them about. “I’m not hiding anything. You were the one hiding something,” I tried.
“I’ve told you the truth. Now you tell me what you found out. Don’t pretend you’re innocent – you’re way too smart for that. Though I hate to tell you this to your face, you have a talent for finding out things you’re not meant to. You’re intelligent, you’re sharp, you’re way too free with your mouth, and you know something. So tell me.”
A stupid part of my mind wanted to giggle at that. James had told me I was smart and witty.
… But this was no time to feel chuffed with myself.
“I… I just assumed he would hide them around the rest of the world. I mean, it’s safer than shoving them under your blanket, right?” I tried.
James looked so stony as he said, “I don’t want to scare you, Audrey – but you’re in a lot of trouble here. The kind of people who are after these postcards are not the kind to be trifled with. They will kill to get what they want,” he said flatly.
Me? I got stuck on the word postcards, big time. There was nothing I could do to control my expression as I swore my eyes widened until they were like two deep wells.
And he saw.
His cheeks slackened, and he took a jerked step toward me. “Shit, you’ve actually found them, haven’t you? That was what you were dancing around saying yesterday at the picnic grounds, wasn’t it? That bullshit story about finding letters up the chimney was a lie, wasn’t it? Audrey, for the love of God, you tell me where those postcards are now.”
I wanted to hold it in, but I couldn’t. My shoulders deflated. “Okay, okay,” I put my hands up, “I found some postcards.”
“Some? You found more than one?” His voice cracked with awe. “How many did you find?”
I winced again, incapable of making eye contact as I chose to stare at my hands instead. “Three.”
He looked as if I’d just revealed I knew the secret of existence.
He took a staggering step back, clamped a hand on his face, and breathed through his stiff fingers. “Three. You found three of my father’s postcards. And what, in just a couple of days? I’ve been looking for those for four months.”
I gave an uncomfortable smile halfway between a frown and the kind of frown you get just before you throw up. “It didn’t take me a couple of days – I found them the first hour I was here.”
He arched an eyebrow. Though his face was still pale, that didn’t stop him from snorting in amazement. “Sorry?”
I shrugged. “I found them the first hour I was here. They were in the doors,” I muttered.
He shook his head. “Inside the doors? How exactly did you find them?”
I reached behind me and rapped my knuckles on the front door. “I heard a rattle. It was curious. Thought there was something wrong with the mechanism. So I took the door off its hinges, turned it over, found a little compartment, and… inside was a postcard.”
He was looking at me with complete astonishment and yet a touch of suspicion. “You took the door off its hinges because you heard a rattle?”
I nodded so vigorously my head could’ve fallen off. “My dad was a handyman. He taught me everything he knew. I hate squeaking doors,” I added. “I also… I get curious sometimes. And when I do, I….” I bit my lip.
“Tend to get in trouble,” he finished for me. Then he half closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. “Where are the postcards?” he said as he reached a hand out to me, ready to accept them.
I shook my head. “No, they’re not here.”
He paled. “Where are they? For the love of God, tell me they’re somewhere safe.”
I swallowed hard. “They’re back at Ms. Smith’s. Under my bed.”
I suddenly appreciated how stupidly naïve that sounded. Though I’d not exactly appreciated how important these postcards were, I’d figured out they had to be significant in some way. And if it’s something that’s important, you don’t hide it under a frigging bed.
James’ jaw tightened to the point of cracking diamond – possibly this Diamond. “I’m not even going to bother pointing out how unbelievably stupid that was. Do you think Ms. Smith will be able to find them?”
I shook my head. “They’re hidden well.”
“And have you told anyone about them? Have you emailed anyone about them? Have you done any ridiculous Internet searches?” he asked, exasperation making every single question quicker than the next.
I shook my head. “I vaguely thought about doing a reverse image search on the images on the front of the postcards, but I didn’t get around to it.”
He sighed, eyes almost rolling back into his head. He locked a hand on his face, appeared to stare at his fingers for several seconds as he composed himself, then let the hand drop. He shook his head. “Then I guess you dodged a bullet, Audrey Diamond.”
“… I did?”
“You did. Now, we’re going to head home, and you’re going to give me those postcards.”
“And then what?” I swallowed.
“You’re going to tap-out of this situation,” he said earnestly.
My stomach twitched, my back straightened, and my mouth opened as I readied to say one thing. Hell no. It was an automatic reply, wasn’t it? It was something the old Audrey would say – that innocent, naïve Audrey who’d never gotten herself into this much trouble.
But now, here I was, knee-deep in some kind of international treasure scandal, and the only thing I really wanted to do was tap-out.
So I nodded. “Fine, let’s go. You think… do you think Ms. Smith will be safe?” I asked, tone genuinely shaking with fear.
James didn’t take long to nod. “The men we’re dealing with here aren’t exactly subtle. If they’d known the postcards were at her house, they would’ve already trashed it to get them. As for you—” he started.
My lips dropped open, and my hands twitched by my sides. “As for me?”
“I think you’ll be fine. As long as you pack up, leave Huddleston, head back to London, and never breathe a word of this again.”
I didn’t even wait – I nodded. Though technically I had a Ph.D. project to do here and James didn’t have the authority to demand I do anything, I was not going to question him.
“Come on,” he said, and I began to follow.
After all, what other option did I have?
At first she followed me, but when I made it out of the door, she stopped.
I bristled and turned around, ready to snap at her and remind her how important this was.
“Shouldn’t we take this opportunity?” she said.
My face solidified with anger. “What opportunity? If you’re talking about the opportunity to give me the postcards, return Ms. Smith her car, and get out of this town before you can get into any more trouble – then you’re absolutely right. We need to take this opportunity right now. So stop wasting time,” I said, and as I did, I made a weird little grabbing motion toward her as if I wanted to snatch her hand. Of course I stopped in time – because I wasn’t a chauvinist pig, even though Miss Diamond may not actually believe that.
If she noticed what I’d been about to do, she didn’t comment. She jammed her thumb behind her. “There are two more postcards, right? Shouldn’t we try to find them before we leave? I mean… these people… these people who are after you aren’t here yet. So shouldn’t we take this opportunity? I doubt we’re going to get it again.”
There were two things she’d just said – two things that made the breath still in my chest. One was that she was absolutely right – we did have an opportunity right now. The other? The other was that she somehow knew there were five postcards. Though I’d been trying to keep my expression even until now – and failing – now my face just shattered completely. “How the hell do you know there are five postcards?” I asked, my insistence giving away the fact she was right.
“There were little symbols at the corners of the three postcards. I figured it out,” she said as she shrugged.
She just figured it out, did she? If this weren’t such a dire situation, I’d throw my head back and laugh. When I’d first met this overly talkative woman, I’d been ready to dismiss her as loud and useless, but now I had to change that assessment. She was still loud, but she was very much not useless. It had taken me months of trawling through my father’s old notes to realize there were five postcards – it’d taken her an hour.
She took a step toward me. Though it was pressured and her brow was slick with sweat, there was still a determined glint in her eye. One of curiosity, too. “I guarantee you they’re still in the house. Maybe I don’t have any evidence of that,” she said, her voice dropping down low on the word evidence, no doubt in reaction to the way I’d admonished her at the picnic grounds yesterday, “but it makes sense. I’ve already scrutinized the other three postcards pretty carefully, and there’s no indication that the other two are hidden elsewhere.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” I conceded.
“Keep up. Your father obviously hid the postcards here for a reason. So someone could find them. Maybe it was Jeffrey, maybe it was you, maybe your father didn’t have time before he died to hide them in a better place. That, or he specifically put them here so you could find them.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that was such a leap, it put Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon to shame.
I didn’t get the opportunity. “Look, it’s just my intuition. Now go with it. We won’t have this chance again. Now, the last three postcards were hidden in doorways and cupboards. It makes sense that the rest will be too.”
Again I wanted to point out that her logic was faulty and that three instances did not indicate a cast-iron hypothesis, but she simply whirled on her foot and started marching around the kitchen, counting on her fingers. “I’ve tried most of the doors, but…” she clicked her fingers, “there are more I didn’t try. “The sheds,” she said, turning to me, her plump, dimpled cheeks brightening a pleasant rosy hue.
I brought my arms up wide. “We don’t have time for this,” I said.
“Bullshit – surely we don’t have time not to find the remaining two postcards. I’m sure you’ll be in a better,” she swallowed, “bargaining position with whoever the hell is after you if you have five of the cards rather than three.”
That, I couldn’t argue with. Plus, she didn’t give me the opportunity. She ran past me, and even if I’d tried to grab her wrist, she was too quick, as she was out of the door in several seconds.
She ran down the cobblestone path that led around the side of the cottage at a clipping pace, and though I stood there for half a second letting my eyes roll into the back of my head in exasperation, I quickly pushed off and followed her.
She made it to the shed, played around with the lock on the door, then quickly jerked to the side, brought up a metal rake, jammed it against the padlock, and pulled.
I was a strong man – hello, I’d been trained by the best, my father, to be exact. And I wasn’t a chauvinist pig. Yet I appreciated that women, structurally speaking, weren’t as strong as men. That rule, however, did not apply to Miss Diamond. She obviously had considerable muscles somewhere under those equally considerable curves, and it was a strength she played to the maximum as she wrenched the locking mechanism off the door without a grunt. The padlock itself didn’t open – she wasn’t superwoman or anything. But the latch that attached it to the shed door and wall wasn’t as lucky.
It popped off and shot past my shoulder. I was quick enough to jerk my head out of the way, and I shot Audrey an amazed look as she quickly bustled inside.
She didn’t waste any time. My father’s shed was well appointed with tools, and she stepped to the wall, immediately selecting the right grade of screwdriver.
She shoved past me and quickly took the hinges off the door, jamming her arm and shoulder into it to brace it so the weight of the door didn’t distort the hinges.
Me? The entire time, I just stood there like a useless idiot.
When it came time to removing the last hinge, I didn’t even have to help her; she braced the weight of the door fully, unscrewed the hinge in a few seconds, grabbed up the door, shuffled past me, twisted around, and looked at the bottom. “You betcha,” she said as the most infectious smile spread across her lips, drawing attention to just how kissable they were. She also clicked her fingers as she pointed at me and the base of the door. Tapping her foot against it, she said, “hidden compartment.”
I was so amazed at this one-woman handyman machine that I didn’t appreciate what she was saying.
As a wave of excitement spiked through my belly, I jerked down to one knee and looked. And there it was – she was right. The bottom of the doorway had been cut out, and a different section of wood had been pushed in to replace it.
Carefully, with a shaking hand, I tapped the wood, hearing that within was hollow.
“We don’t have time for that,” she snapped efficiently as she shoved past me, jerked the screwdriver into the point where the new wood attached to the old, and pushed. There was a splitting of wood, and the new insert gave way.
Without a care for spiders or creepy crawlies, she shoved her fingers in and patted around until she found something.
Again that same infectious smile spread across her lips, drawing way more attention to them than I should be paying them, considering the circumstances.
She pulled out a plastic packet.
And within? A postcard.
I… stopped still.
I reached toward the postcard with a shaking hand, and I was surprised when a compassionate smile spread Audrey’s lips. She handed me the postcard, stood, and walked a respectful distance to the side, obviously giving me time.
And it was time and space that I needed. I swallowed so hard, I could’ve pulled my tongue from my throat.
Because here it was. My ticket to redemption. My mind flashed with what my father had said in the letter to my mother.
James would fix it all.
I would fix it all.
With a swallow, I turned the postcard around but saw there wasn’t much written there. Inscribed in my father’s imprecise scrawl was a nonsensical message. That was it.
I was in my own little world as I stared at it, in my own little world as I turned the postcard over and realized that I didn’t recognize the picture on the front. Then I just… knelt there, staring at it.
But that would be when Audrey suddenly jerked toward me. Out of my peripheral vision, I could see that her cheeks were pale. “There’s a car – James, there’s a car coming up the drive.”
Though I would need more time to get over the fact I’d finally found one of these postcards, I pushed past the shock. I also reached out a hand, placed it on Audrey’s shoulder, and gently pushed her to the left and behind me.
She didn’t stop me. She didn’t even look at my hand. With wide-open eyes, she stared at me. Though she was usually as loud as a foghorn, she didn’t say a word. She didn’t demand to know what was going on – she was clearly smart enough to figure that out by herself.
I nodded toward the shed, hoping it was obvious I wanted her to hide inside. Then I shifted forward warily. It was her turn to grab my arm. To do it, she reversed my grip with the expert firmness of someone who knew self-defense. She didn’t take the opportunity to shove into me and punch me for being a jerk. Instead, still holding onto my wrist, she pointed to the shed. “Weapon,” she mouthed.
Then she let go, darted in, paused for a second, plucked up a crowbar, then handed it to me.
I had time to make eye contact.
She was cut from a different mold to the women I was used to.
I didn’t point that out. I made my way around the shed. It could have just been Jeffrey, but I doubted it. I knew the shitty car Jeffrey drove, and its suspension could be heard from a mile away. No, whatever had crept up my father’s old driveway had been silent, swift, and deadly.
Apparently this game was about to take another turn.
You had to be shitting me. Honestly, this couldn’t be happening. This was the type of crazy stuff you got in games and movies – not the real world. I know I’ve mentioned that before, but now I was pointing it out with all my heart. Because this wasn’t fair. It shouldn’t be happening.
… And yet, it was.
Watching James creep around the side of the shed with a crowbar in his hand had to be one of the most frightening experiences of my life. I wasn’t scared that he’d accidentally clock someone on the head. I was terrified for his safety. Yeah, I’d only just met this guy technically. And most of me hated him. But the prospect he could be attacked was simply horrifying.
Though it was obvious that he wanted me to hide in the shed, I couldn’t. I just… stood there for several seconds, letting my hearing become as acute as it could possibly be, trying to pick up every single step, every single hushed breath.
Though I had my phone on me, there was nowhere around here that had reception.
So I was… stuck, wasn’t I? I didn’t even have the keys to my car. Shit, James still had them. He’d taken them when he’d moved my car around back. So I was… I was in the most precarious situation of my entire life.
And yet, I wasn’t falling to pieces.
Before my Dad had become a handyman, he’d had a stint working with the police but had been forced to retire due to a knee injury.
He always told me that some people were cut out for action and some people weren’t. It had nothing to do with personality types and only a little to do with training. You see, inherently, some people would run toward someone who was screaming, and others would run away or simply freeze. It was probably a biological thing, he’d said. Maybe natural selection ensured that you always had brave people willing to sacrifice their lives for the rest of society. And yet others would always run for safety to ensure the population lived on.
And right here and now? Right here and now, I found out which side of the fence I was on.
Rather than shrink away or run screaming into the woods, carefully, trying to be as quiet as the damn proverbial mouse, I returned to the shed and took a quick stock take of potential weapons.
Fortunately, they were numerous. This was an extremely well-stocked shed. From a frigging chainsaw, to material that could be quickly made into a Molotov cocktail, to a goddamn nail gun, I wasn’t exactly devoid of weaponry.
But I couldn’t go in wielding a chainsaw and hoping I didn’t get shot.
I took a breath, settled my nerves, walked outside, and made my way around to the back of the house.
I’d taken a good snoop around the place when Jeffrey had accidentally left me here, and I knew for a fact there was one of those long ladders around the back. It was long enough, in fact, to make it up to the roof.
This house had an attic – specifically, one with a side dormer window. All I needed to do was climb up to the window, jam the fastener open with a screwdriver or a paint scraper, clamber inside… and… save James.
I half closed my eyes, nodded, wiped my sweaty hands on my pants, and made my way around back.
It was time to find out just what kind of action girl I was.
There was no question in my mind that it was Jeremiah’s men.
And I wasn’t wrong.
As soon as I snuck around front, I saw two of them entering the front of the house while another pushed toward the side.
My mind was a blur of adrenaline.
When Jeremiah’s men had pushed their way into my house in town, I’d retained my rationality. Now that rationality was blown away as belly-shaking fear powered through me like a shot at close range. It wasn’t because I was scared for my own safety – it was because, for the first time, I’d dragged an innocent into this situation. Though the cynical part of my mind wanted to point out that Miss Diamond wasn’t an innocent – she was willfully irritating – I pushed that back. Because while she was infuriating, she was technically just a normal woman. And she shouldn’t die at the hands of these assholes because of my father’s twisted, awful games.
So I tightened my hands on the crowbar as I crept forward.
I’d already taken down three of Jeremiah’s men at my house, and I could do it again, even if I didn’t have a gun or a handy paint can.
But I wasn’t given that opportunity. Just as I crept around the side of the house, intending to clamber through one of the bedroom windows, sneak around inside, and attack Jeremiah’s men from behind, I didn’t get that opportunity.
I heard a grunt from behind me. Before I could spin, I felt something being slammed into the center of my back. Searing hot pain stabbed into my spine, pushing through my chest and locking my arms in place as I was pushed forward. I slammed head-first into the uneven cobble, and it snagged skin from my brow, sending a quick spray of blood splattering over my eyes.
I didn’t have time to grunt as I felt a giant man push in from behind, pin me to the ground with a knee against my coccyx, and snarl as he looped an arm over my throat.
I choked and spluttered, but there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to break his grip. When he’d struck me on the back with his weapon, he’d knocked the crowbar out of my hands.
“James Grimsby,” the man said with an accent that was a mixture of Zimbabwean and British, “long time no see.”
Grimsby. I’d changed my name from Grimsby years ago, and while I wanted to scream that fact at this asshole, he didn’t give me the opportunity as he kept his arm pinned against my throat. He was obviously big enough to wrench me to my feet in a single move. Then he frog-marched me through the door into the kitchen. Three of Jeremiah’s men were standing there waiting for us, and they all cracked into grins. One grabbed a chair, slammed it onto the tile, and stood back as the Zimbabwean behind me muscled me over and shoved me into it.
Jeremiah’s men were quick and efficient and tied me to the chair with cable ties they produced from their utility belts. They didn’t bother to gag me. They obviously didn’t know Audrey was here. Or maybe they did know and simply didn’t care. I was now facing off against four pissed off men who could easily kill me, cut me up into little bits, and incinerate my body without a soul ever finding out.
I let my desperate gaze dart to the side as I realized I’d seen four of Jeremiah’s men to begin with, not including the Zimbabwean. Which meant there was another one roaming around somewhere. And presumably he was still making his way around the back of the house. And where was Audrey? She was turning out to be a seriously surprising girl, but I could guarantee she didn’t have the kind of skills to deal with these bastards.
I took a tight breath. “Look, I’ll negotiate. I’ll give you what you want. Just—”
“Just what?” the Zimbabwean said as he locked his hands on his knees and leaned in close. He was easily one of the biggest men I’d ever seen. His muscles bristled out of the tight black T-shirt he wore under the dark black straps of his armored vest.
“Just be kind,” I managed.
He laughed, rounded a hand into a fist, and punched me in the gut.
I’d heard a scuffle. From around the front, I’d definitely heard a scuffle. Somebody knocking someone out, and panting breath as they dragged him inside.
James. It had to be James. Whoever the hell had come here, they had him already.
My mind whirled. It was as if my thoughts had turned into helicopters. And yet – and yet I didn’t stop.
I carried through with my original plan.
I shifted back to the shed, found a tool belt, and stuffed it with a hammer and the cordless nail gun. Then I crept around the back of the house to the ladder.
It was still there.
Obviously some of the slate roof had been in the process of being replaced before Grimsby had died, because there were neat piles of slate lined up next to the ladder, which was on its side.
I shoved toward the ladder, ensuring my footfall was as quiet as it possibly could be. But that would be when I heard the crunch of leaves and twigs from the side of the house.
It couldn’t be James. I didn’t think it was James for an instant. I wasn’t one of those hopeless girls who would shout out his name on the off-chance it wasn’t one of the bad guys.
I shrunk back against the wall, knowing the large ornamental conifer to the side of the house would hide me from view as whoever was creeping toward me rounded the corner of the house.
At the same time, I reached down, grabbed one of the slabs of slate, and got ready.
I was a strong woman – no one needed to point that out. I’d also been punished for throwing things as a kid. No, I hadn’t gotten into tantrums and chucked things about the house or anything. I’d just played a lot of discus and frisbee. So I was good. And though the slate was heavy, I didn’t let that bother me.
As soon as I heard footsteps around the house – the harsh, unmistakable sound of heavy boots against cobble – I chucked the slate like a discus.
My aim was true, and the power of my throw was unquestionable.
Just as a heavyset man in black pants, a black shirt, and a black armored vest came into view, the slate collected him in the chest. It was a strong enough move that it knocked him backward and he fell against the cobble with a thump.
I was upon him in an instant. Because it turns out I was one of those people who would run toward trouble and not away.
Yanking the nail gun from my pocket, I leaped forward, reached him, jumped down, latched a hand on his chest, and angled the nail gun up toward the underside of his throat.
No. I am not shitting you.
Though I’d taken self-defense classes as a young adult – as my father had insisted on it – I wasn’t a special forces superwoman here. But do you think that mattered?
No. Because I appreciated that to get out of here, I could not be meek. To get out of here, I had to be just as strong and fearless as these bastards.
Sure enough, the asshole in the black body armor hadn’t been expecting it, and when he caught his breath from being punched in the chest with slate, I watched his eyes open at the prospect I was pointing a nail gun at the underside of his throat.
“One shot from this and your brains will go splat,” I said.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I realized that that was my first one-liner.
I was turning into a frigging action heroine here – but now was not the time to appreciate that.
The guy began to snarl, then he opened his mouth.
I knew exactly what he was going to do – he was going to scream to his buddies. And while I’d managed to catch him using the element of surprise, I doubted I’d be able to take on a team of trained men.
So I did it. No, I did not fire – I had no intention of making this man’s brains go splat. I wasn’t a freaking psychopath, thank you very much. Instead? I twisted the nail gun around and slammed it into his jaw, making him splutter before he could scream.
Then? I scrabbled at his belt, seeing something out of the corner of my eye and recognizing it instantly.
It was a Taser.
I jerked backward, fired, and watched as the wires sprung from the tip, slammed into him, and knocked him out after a few satisfying twitches.
Then? I, Audrey Diamond, carefully put a hand out, pressed it into the wall of the house, and almost passed out. Because I had just knocked a man out cold. I had just had an altercation with a trained criminal in body armor, and I had won.
It took several deep, deep breaths before I took a step forward, dropped to my knee, checked that the guy was still breathing, then slapped him several times to see if he would wake.
Rather than leave him to spring another attack, I found what I assumed were cable ties in one of the pouches of his utility belt.
Though I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, I tied him up as best as I could, gagged him with an old musty rag I found close by, and then I shoved off. Not before I removed the utility belt from his hips. Now I had two utility belts – a handyman’s belt and a freaking mercenary’s belt. Worse? Oh-so worse? There was a gun. An actual handgun.
I had no idea what this fellow’s friends were doing to James, and I had absolutely no ability to call the authorities, so I went through with my original plan. Shifting the tall ladder up to the roof with nothing more than a subdued grunt, I checked it was level, ensured it was safe, then clambered up it quickly.
When I reached the window to the attic, I shifted around and grabbed the paint scraper from my handyman belt. I thrust it in between the wood of the window and the casement latch. It was locked, but my luck held as the old weathered wood rattled. I put all my strength into it, bracing against the ladder with my knee as I heaved. The mechanism holding the window in place broke, and it creaked open.
It was loud, but it wasn’t so loud that it would have echoed through the house.
For several seconds, I remained perched on the ladder, hand underneath the window as I kept it half open and I listened with everything I had. When I wasn’t greeted with thundering footfall, I silently opened the rest of the window, clambered inside, leaned against the pane, breathed for a few seconds, then pushed on.
Nothing. I was keeping an ear out for Audrey’s screams, but there was nothing.
The Zimbabwean was obviously the guy in charge, and just as obviously, he had a bone to pick with me. While the other three were busying themselves walking through the house, this guy just stood there, arms crossed as he stared at me.
Me? I kept my teeth clenched as I looked up at him from under a bleeding brow. “Do I know you?” I managed.
He snorted. “No, but I met your beloved father,” he said, putting as much effort into snarling the word beloved as a hyena does in warning the lion off its kill.
I stared at him. “Piss you off, did he?
The guy snorted. He also unhooked his arms from around his middle and flexed one hand, every knuckle popping white against his flesh.
I clenched my jaw harder, determined not to let this prick disconcert me. But there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop the fear climbing my back over what could be happening to Audrey.
Though I’d been in this game my whole life, most of that time it had felt fun. Fast cars, fast money, and no rules.
Now? Now it felt completely different. Because now an innocent woman’s life was in my hands.
Sweat drenched my brow, trickling down the side of my head, despite the fact it contravened one of my father’s cardinal rules. He’d told me at the tender age of 10 that if I ever got captured and tortured, my only tool would be my calm. Because there was nothing that throws off a torturer more than calm.
Though I could remember that lesson crystal clear, I certainly couldn’t freaking follow it.
“I’m going to give you five minutes to give me the postcards. Then I am gonna break every single finger you have.”
“Sounds like a shady deal,” I managed.
He snorted. “I haven’t finished the deal yet. After I break your fingers and toes, I might let you go. If you promise to be a good fucking boy and drop this treasure hunting business.” As he said that, he leaned forward, the muscles of his neck looking like taut rope holding a rabid dog back.
I looked up from under my bleeding brow. “I’ll get your postcards. But they’re not here,” I said.
No, I had absolutely no intention of dragging this asshole to Ms. Smith’s house. I had already gotten one innocent involved, and I would not allow that to happen again. I just had to get these bastards somewhere else, distract them, and buy myself a chance of escaping.
The Zimbabwean obviously saw through my plan, though, and chucked his head back and chuckled. Then? He rounded his hand into a fist and punched me in the side.
I jerked back, wincing, fighting past a tide of pain and nausea as it rammed hard through my stomach.
But I didn’t scream. Wouldn’t scream. I just looked up into his eyes. “You think Jeremiah’s going to be able to find the artworks on his own? You think he has the smarts to figure out my father’s clues? I mean, you yourself did say you knew my father. You must appreciate how much of a tricky bastard he was.”
That could just have elicited another punch from the Zimbabwean, but his jaw stiffened harder. I didn’t know what my father had done to this guy, but I could bet it hadn’t been pleasant. Which didn’t surprise me – my father had a history of pissing off everyone he’d ever met.
“You let Jeremiah figure out how we’ll find the art,” the Zimbabwean said as he extended a finger toward me. “You just think about whether you really want to live. You see, you have two options. You find us the postcards, give them up, and submit to a few broken pinkies and toes,” he said with relish, “or we kill you and find them ourselves.”
Though this guy could have been prevaricating, though his threat to kill me could have been nothing more than just that – a threat – it wasn’t. This SOB didn’t just have the skills to kill me, he had the cold heart to do it with a smile on his face.
All the while I was thinking that, I kept my hearing peeled. Despite every thought, despite every threat, I kept it peeled. I tried to figure out if they’d found Audrey, tried to figure out if she’d been smart enough to run away.
But that would be when I heard it. A thump.
It wasn’t from outside; it was further back into the house.
The Zimbabwean heard it too, as he took a step back, his large eyebrows knitting together in confusion. “Oy, Jenks, is that you? You fall over something?”
Jenks didn’t reply.
There was another thump.
Now the Zimbabwean acted. He jerked back, went straight for his gun, and pushed toward the door.
My mind buzzed. With every possibility. Except one. My swirling thoughts told me it could be anyone from the special forces, to one of Sandy’s teams, to my goddamn brother.
But I was wrong. So freaking wrong.
Dear God. Dear God.
What… what in the hell was I doing?
I’d just taken out two more guys. Not on purpose. The first one had spun around the door, and I’d shot him with a Taser faster than I could say boo.
The second one had come to investigate the first one, and before the Taser could recharge, I’d rammed into him, knocking him backward and pulling the nail gun from my holster – because apparently in my head you went for that over the real gun. Then I’d pressed it against his throat.
Once the Taser had recharged, I’d shot him with it.
I… there was no way to describe what my mind was doing right now. It was running loops around my body, making me sicker than I’d ever been and yet more exhilarated at the same time.
Ordinary, normal girls like me did not do things like this. Back when my father had revealed to me that there were two kinds of people – those who run away and those who run toward danger – he’d never stopped to qualify how goddamn weird it was to be one of the former.
My sensibilities kept telling me to stop, that good girls certainly do not run around, break into houses, and defeat mercenaries with Tasers.
Good girls just stand there and scream and wait for bad boys to save them, right?
Well currently, my bad boy was in the kitchen if my hearing was anything to go by.
And I could bet there were more mercenaries in the house.
Because yeah, I was starting to refer to them as mercenaries. I didn’t know what else to call them. They clearly weren’t common criminals, just as they clearly didn’t belong to the law. If they were actual policemen, they’d be wearing uniforms with the word police emblazoned across the back and the front. Instead they were dressed in this jet-black gear that made them look like a cross between a special forces operative and a ninja. Suffice to say, I might’ve seen this get-up in the movies, but I had never seen anything like this in the real world. This was the type of shit you got in the deepest darkest wars, not in a sweet cottage in country England.
“Keep it together, keep it together,” I whispered so quietly under my breath, the words didn’t technically leave my mouth.
I also stowed the nail gun, plucked up the Taser, and rounded the corner.
I knew in the back of my head that the element of surprise was the only thing I had. Both of those men had frozen the second they’d seen me because they clearly hadn’t been expecting a large broad with a nail gun. No, in their heads, they’d obviously been expecting other crazy illegal mercenary bands, not ladies dressed in sweet polka dot tops with Alice bands.
So I had to play this to my advantage. Plus, I had absolutely no idea how much time James had. In my head, he didn’t have any. If I was the bad guy and I had him tied to a chair, I would beat him senseless for being the most irritating prick in existence.
“Come on, it’ll be okay,” I whispered under my breath, hoping that despite how much I hated the guy, he would still be alive by the end of the day.
I could hear something from the kitchen: footfall. Quiet, practiced, but there.
The good thing about this cottage was it hadn’t been built in a logical manner. The rooms weren’t simply distributed either side of the corridor. Instead, you had to go through the lounge room in order to get to the hallway that would lead to two of the bedrooms and then another short hallway to go around the back. So what did I do? Well, it was time to move around.
Like I said, the element of surprise.
Also, though I’d only been in this house for a few days, I knew it quite well.
Shifting quickly, sure to muffle my footfall by walking on the carpet, not the floor, I made it to the back door, opened it as silently as I could, hit the cobble outside, and ran around. I passed the first guy I’d knocked out with the Taser, and he was still lying there, unconscious, all tied up.
Keeping close to the house and ducking down whenever I reached a window, I made it around front.
I didn’t immediately duck my head in the kitchen door – I didn’t want it to be shot off, funnily enough.
Plus, I needed to ascertain how many bad dudes were left. That’s what you did in games, right? You didn’t run into an action scene until you knew how many hostiles there were.
My mind working faster than it had ever worked before – which was saying something, as I always lived my life at Warp 10 – I pressed my back against the front of the house, next to the open kitchen door, and I waited.
“Move,” I heard a guy say in a heavy accent which sounded of English-African extraction.
I heard the shuffle of feet.
There was a reflective wind chime just to my side, and carefully I reached a hand up and grasped one of the reflective sheets.
It was attached by a hook, and taking a breath so I didn’t dare disturb the chime, I unhooked the glass.
Using my supersonic hearing, I ascertained that the remaining mercenary was walking away from the kitchen door. I got down on my knees and carefully inched the glass along the floor until I could tip it up into the kitchen through the half-open door.
Though the view it gave me was fractured and imperfect, I saw what I needed to see. One enormous man in black camo gear and one Mr. Prick.
He was alive. His hands were tied, there was a massive gash over his brow, he was hunched over as if he’d been punched several times, and he was currently being shoved forward as the massive man pressed a gun into his back.
So it was time for a distraction, right?
I had absolutely no chance if I ever got within range of the massive mercenary. I imagined even if I hit him with 10 tasers at once, it wouldn’t have an effect. He looked like a rhino who’d been crammed into camo gear.
So I took a breath and finally did it. I went for the gun.
I’d never used a gun. I’d never even seen a gun up close.
But here I was, holding a gun. And unless I figured out how to use it, James was going to see the wrong side of life pretty soon.
But I had to be careful. Had to plan.
Because James was right – I was smart. And I intended to use that intelligence to the fullest.
What was going on?
No, really, what the fuck was going on?
As the massive Zimbabwean urged me forward, the cold muzzle of his gun pressing against my spine, he pushed me through the house. First, we saw one downed mercenary in the drawing room. Then another in my father’s bedroom.
Somebody had knocked them out cold.
The Zimbabwean didn’t make a sound, but boy did he stiffen. I could hear the fabric of his jacket tighten and crinkle.
“Move,” he hissed in my ear, shoving me harder in the back with the muzzle of the gun.
I knew exactly what he was thinking. He would shift through the house until he found whoever had downed his men, then he’d use me as bait to make them drop their weapon.
But there was a problem – I had no freaking clue who’d downed his men.
… It couldn’t be… it couldn’t be my brother, right?
I kept telling myself this wasn’t his style. When he came to rescue you, he brought 10 helicopters and half the British Army. He wasn’t this ninja-esque.
My dad had been, but my dad was long dead. As for Sandy, he was back in London. And though he had some great men under his command, they wouldn’t be able to get here in time. Nor would they have known I needed rescue.
So who the fuck was out there? And, more importantly, were they on my side? Had they managed to save Audrey? Or had Audrey done the best possible thing and run off when I told her to?
Too many freaking questions. I swore they were burning a hole in my mind.
The Zimbabwean shoved me hard in the back, angling toward the back of the house.
I knew the only way I would get out of his grasp was if I distracted him long enough to go for his throat. Seriously, that would be his only Achilles’ heel. The rest of him was built like a brick shit house. He looked like a genetics experiment that had crawled out of a brick factory. He was like an orc out of a fantasy novel.
And he wasn’t letting go of me – not for a second. He kept shoving the gun harder into my back, not caring that he’d just spent the past five minutes punching me in the gut and I was having a little trouble moving quickly here.
We reached the back of the house. We looked around the side, slowly, the Zimbabwean always shifting his attention left-and-right as he ensured no one could come up from behind.
We shifted to the left of the house, and that would be when he stopped. Because he finally found his remaining buddy. This guy had been knocked out cold and had also been cable tied.
Jesus Christ. We were dealing with professionals.
Move over my brother – had the special forces gotten involved?
It wasn’t outside the realms of possibility. Everyone wanted their hands on my father’s postcards.
The Zimbabwean no longer uttered a word. He moved slowly but deliberately toward the front of the house.
And that would be when the door shut. It could’ve been the wind. It could’ve been a boot. Point was, the sound of the door slamming shut rattled through the entire building.
The Zimbabwean let out a tense breath.
It was one I shared as I desperately wondered who was out there and whether they were friend or foe. Because hey, it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility that it was the Russians or one of my other countless foes. They might sweep in and deal with Jeremiah’s men, but then they might promptly turn around, shove me back in that chair, and get back to torturing me.
I had to get out of here.
And the door, though it provided me with a distraction, did not provide me with sufficient time to shove back and get out of the Zimbabwean’s grip. Plus, with the muzzle of his gun pressed permanently against my spine, if I made the wrong move, I would be a paraplegic. Or hey, maybe the bullet would just punch a hole through my heart. Point was, it wouldn’t end well for me.
So I held on and prayed to whatever avenging angel was out there.
I had a plan.
Maybe it was ridiculous. But it was the only freaking plan I had.
I caught sight of the huge mercenary as he walked around the house. You see, I’d walked back into the house and I’d locked the front door, deliberately letting it slam. Now I was in the lounge room, sunk down by the couch, watching as I saw the massive mercenary push James around the side of the house.
The guy was totally freaking huge.
I needed a cast-iron plan to take him down.
And I think I had one.
Cast-iron being the operative word.
Okay, technically steel, but who cared.
I made my way through to the back of the house, heart beating at a million miles an hour. I reached the door, closed it, and locked it. Though it wouldn’t exactly count for much, as these were not the kind of home invaders to give up when confronted by a locked door. If Mr. Mercenary wanted back in, he’d just shoot his way through one of the glass windows.
Shifting past the comatose body of one of the mercenaries, I headed back up to the attic, climbed the stairs, reached the top, headed to the open window, and peered out.
I still didn’t know where the huge mercenary was, but that didn’t stop me from leaning all the way out as far as I could.
I still had the gun in one hand, though it would be a last resort, for several reasons. Not only did I not want to kill someone – I doubted I had the ability to aim. The Tasers had been easy, because I’d been up close and personal with the mercenaries at the time. But if I honestly thought I could take a potshot out the window and shoot the mercenary rather than James, then I was kidding myself.
But there was another option, wasn’t there?
My father had always told me that the secret to getting yourself out of trouble was to think faster than your opponent. It was also to think better. To think laterally, to do things they wouldn’t even imagine.
And this guy – this hulking great well-trained well-armed mercenary was expecting someone like himself. In other words, someone who thought like him.
I was a wildcard.
And that wildcard latched one hand on the ladder and got ready.
I waited and waited. There was every possibility that the mercenary was so quiet that he’d managed to break the front door down and was currently creeping his way up to the attic.
Though I closed the door to the attic, this guy was a professional. He could kick it down and shoot me in under a few seconds.
No. What I had was hope, and my exceedingly good hearing, which I used to its maximum. The second I heard a creak outside, would be the second I would turn and… start shooting. Or something like that.
But I didn’t hear a creak on the landing outside. Instead?
I heard footfall. The good thing about being up high was you had a heck of a better vantage to hear what was going on.
I saw the mercenary skulking around the house once more, coming from the right. James was still in front of him, and he still had the gun pressed so hard against James’ back it looked as if he was trying to poke his spine out of his stomach.
I couldn’t breathe. Not a single frigging breath.
But I still retained enough awareness and attention to lock all of it on the mercenary.
I waited and waited. Fortunately, the bastard didn’t look up. Not once.
It was clear he expected attack from the ground.
Which was not going to happen.
“One more step,” I subvocalized. “Just one more step.”
And finally the mercenary took it. He shoved James forward, and though James was hunched over and clearly injured, he took a quicker step this time.
Maybe it was instinct, or maybe James was getting sick of being led around. Didn’t matter. It gave me the opportunity I needed.
And by Jove did I take it.
I shoved the ladder hard. It swung backward and clattered down.
The guy was big, but this ladder was bigger. It was also falling from a considerable height. More than that, it was a bloody big surprise.
The guy jolted to the side, dropping his gun as he brought his arm up to stop the ladder from squishing him flat. And though he was a big boy, he didn’t have the power to fight against the ladder’s momentum, and it knocked him onto his back.
That gave James all the time he needed. He went straight for the mercenary’s gun.
The guy tried to kick him, and though James was fast, he wasn’t fast enough. The kick landed on his knee and sent him pushing backward.
The mercenary went for his gun.
I finally did it. I pulled the trigger.
I didn’t dare aim for anywhere near James and the mercenary, though.
I aimed for the lawn. Fortunately, I got it.
And fortunately it was so sudden and surprising that the mercenary froze.
I pointed the gun right at him. “The next one goes in your head,” I said, surprised that my voice was not only even but seriously badass.
It must have been hard enough that the guy slowly brought his hands up.
I was lying. I was lying very much. The next bullet would not go into his head.
It would go somewhere completely random. The only reason I’d managed to hit the lawn was it was categorically the biggest target out there.
While I could threaten somebody, clearly I needed a little practice when it came to shooting them.
It didn’t matter. The mercenary had his hands up, enabling James to go for the gun. Though his hands were cable-tied behind him, James somehow looped his arms over his head, and I heard a crack as if his shoulder dislodged. He grabbed the gun, took several expert steps backward, and pointed it right at the guy’s chest.
“Hold him there,” I instructed as if I were the seasoned soldier here and not the complete newbie. “I’m coming.” With that, I thrust the attic door open, trundled down the stairs, looped around to the back, unlocked the door, sprang out, and… stared down at the massive mercenary.
He was on his back. He’d been knocked out.
James slowly turned to me.
His face said it all. I mean everything. The way his mouth was unhinged as if somebody had removed his lower jaw. The way his eyebrows were so damn peaked, they’d almost disappeared into his perfectly ruffled hair. The way his gaze kind of shuddered. “What the hell just happened, Audrey?”
“I guess you knocked him out,” I said innocently and stupidly.
“Where did you… where did you get a gun? And where are the others?”
“You mean the other three mercenaries? I tasered two in the house, and the third one is around the side,” I said.
Something apparently clicked in James’ head.
“Sorry, what, you tasered them? That was you?” His voice shot up so high, it was a surprise it didn’t launch into outer space.
I took a breath. A steeling breath, a calming breath, the kind of breath that gave me the time to appreciate that yes, that had been me.
And now, a sudden urge to throw up overwhelmed me.
“Hold on,” I said as I clapped a hand over my mouth, dived for a bush, and emptied my stomach.
Feeling seriously sorry for myself, I pushed up, pressed a hand to the back of my mouth, and turned.
Far from looking disgusted at the fact I’d just added a little bit of unnecessary fertilizer to one of his father’s roses, James didn’t shift his gaze off me. “You can’t be serious, Audrey. You’re not telling me you took down three trained mercenaries on your own?”
I looked at him and shrugged. “The first one was a surprise. I threw a piece of slate at him.” I pointed to the piece of slate. “Then I threatened him with a nail gun.” I patted a hand on my tool belt. “Then I tied him up with his cable ties. Which is harder than the movies make it look. Then… then I used the ladder to climb into the attic. The next mercenary kind of surprised me, and then… I guess I took down the other one as well. I… I don’t really know how it happened,” I kept shrugging and apologizing for myself, sounding like a complete idiot. Because now the situation was over, I was this tingly, sweaty mess. And most importantly, gone was the one weapon I could always rely on – my wit. I stood there and stared at him, looking like a stunned mullet.
To be fair to me, he looked like a stunned mullet too.
He brought a hand up, pressed it against the back of his mouth, wiped the sweat from his top lip, looked at me for one last second, then turned his attention back to the massive mercenary.
There was a particular kind of look in his eye.
“Don’t shoot him,” I suddenly said.
This made James splutter. “Of course I’m not going to shoot him. He’s down.”
“Oh,” I commented. Then? Then I kind of remembered the fact I had a gun in my hand. I gave it a freaked out look which James saw. Though he was having trouble moving, he walked over to me, slowly reached out a hand, and took the gun.
I didn’t even bother fighting him on this one; I handed it to him, sure to keep the muzzle pointed at the ground.
He took it from me, clicked the safety on, and shoved it into the back of his pants. Then he gave me another one of those lingering, terrified, surprised, confused looks. “Where exactly do you come from?”
I looked to the side. “London?”
“You are not telling me that you accidentally took down three mercenaries. Seriously, have you had training?”
I shrugged. “Like I said before, my dad was a handyman.”
“Unless that’s a euphemism for an assassin, that doesn’t make… this doesn’t make any sense,” he said with an exasperated wave of his hand as he gestured toward the downed mercenaries.
“My dad always said there’s two types of people – people who run toward trouble and people who run away. I guess… I guess I’m the former.” I was muttering, babbling, but could I stop? No. Though my wit had not returned to me, my need to speak had.
I felt like I was about to have verbal diarrhea all over him.
But he didn’t let me.
He appeared to take a calming breath as if he were finally coming to terms with the fact that I – the ditzy, crazy history student – had done what he couldn’t.
He shot me a serious look. “We need to get out of here.”
“No shit, Bond,” I said. “But we have to call the cops, right?”
He didn’t reply.
I paled slightly. “Don’t we… don’t we need to call the police? Don’t they need to know about this? I mean… these guys all have guns. They weren’t playing around.”
“No,” he commented quietly, “Audrey, they were not playing around. But we can’t call the police.” He shook his head.
“That would freak too many people out. They’d ask too many questions.”
I started to get a kind of vibe. “Who… who exactly are you?”
Before I could freak out completely that I’d got it all wrong and James was a bad guy, he put up a hand in a stopping motion. “I work for a… specific agency of the British Government,” he said.
“I thought you said you worked for Lloyd’s?”
He shrugged. “I do. But I also… shall we say, have extracurricular activities.”
I shook my head. “You’re losing me here. I don’t have a brain right now. I am so freaked out,” I said as I kept a hand pressed against my mouth, hating the taste of sick that was coating my tongue but incapable of washing it away. Heck, I was incapable of thinking. The only thing I could do was stand here and replay everything that had just happened. Though I was freaking out now, I’d been completely cool during the event. Okay, not completely cool, but cool enough to keep going.
… Slowly, slowly that fact was settling in.
More than anything, it was being hammered home by the look James was shooting me.
“Just take a deep breath, Audrey. It’ll pass.”
“What will pass?”
“The adrenaline fatigue. It’ll pass. It’s just being flushed from your system. Keep breathing, and when we get inside, you can have some water. But we won’t be able to stay.”
I shook my head. “Get back to the bit about the fact you work for a… British agency. You… are you…” I couldn’t even say it.
“A spy?” he supplied, and as he did, he gave me this little choreographed move where he dipped his head down, arched one eyebrow, and kind of looked up from under his hair. Though that didn’t sound hot, trust me, it was.
I squeaked. “You’re a spy?”
He chuckled. “Not exactly. I was recruited by the current head of the agency. A man who my father once worked for. He gave me the chance to make up for my father’s sins,” he said, voice dropping so low and becoming so husky it sounded like a rake over gravel.
I blinked rapidly. “What does that mean?”
“You’ll never have heard of the agency, so I won’t bother repeating it. All you need to know is that I’m tasked with finding what my father hid. And that this,” he spread a hand toward the mercenaries, “will be dealt with legally. Do you understand, Audrey?”
I nodded automatically. Honestly, if he’d just asked me for a kidney or to marry him, I would’ve nodded. Anything to make this situation make sense.
He kept looking at me steadily. And though he’d been seriously impressed by my antics earlier, it was now obvious that he was appreciating I was coming undone, thread-by-thread. “As soon as we get back into mobile range, I’m going to call my handler – Sandy. Who’ll deal with this for us.”
Suddenly, it was like a lightbulb went off in his head. “Where’s the postcard?” he snapped so quickly I could barely make out his words.
I hadn’t been an idiot – and I’d certainly not left it in the shed.
I’d known that the safest place was on me.
I didn’t exactly have a pocket, though.
But the thing about being a big-busted girl was that we always had somewhere to shove our phone and wallet.
Looking a little ashamed of myself, I half turned around, stuck a hand down my cleavage, and pulled out the postcard. “It’s a little bent,” I said bashfully as I handed it to him.
He cleared his throat. There was something about the exact way that he did it that reminded me of an English gentleman looking away as a lady did something immodest.
Which, forgive me if I’m wrong, was completely at odds with his personality. He looked like the kind of smooth asshole to wink at women on the street and get away with it.
He straightened the postcard, and thankfully it wasn’t too bad.
His shoulders relaxed. Not all the way down. He kept shooting the mercenary beside him a calculating look as if he were checking that the guy was still down.
“If he’s anything like the others, he has cable ties in one of those little pouches on his belt,” I pointed out. “Should we tie him up? I mean, I don’t know how long these taser things last for.”
He nodded. He reached down to tie the mercenary by his feet, but I skidded up to him.
“Shouldn’t I do it? Shouldn’t you stand a few steps back with the gun raised in case he’s only playing knocked out?”
Again James shot me the kind of look that told me he had no idea what to do with me. “I guess you’re right,” he said in a tone that was halfway between surprise and sheer disbelief.
I got down to my knee, quickly plunged a hand into the same pocket where the cable ties had been on the other mercenaries, and got to work tying this guy up. It was pretty hard, considering he was massive, but I was getting better at it.
… Holy shit, had I just thought that? I was getting better at cable tying men quickly?
Before I could completely freak out at that thought, I pushed back into action, jumped up, sprang toward the open door, and trundled into the bedroom where I’d dropped the second mercenary.
James did the same thing, always standing behind me with his gun trained on the bad dude as I tied him.
By the time I’d checked the remaining mercenaries, I was old-hat at tying up unconscious men.
Then, finally, I set my hands on my knees and took a much-needed deep breath.
Again James’ eyes were on me, and again it was clear he was assessing if I was okay.
I managed to put a hand up and shrug. Pressing my palm flat against my chest, I took one more breath and then tried to smile. It was more of a wince, but I was going with it. “What next? Do we drive into range and call this Sandy guy? Then where do we go? There’ll be more, won’t there?”
James shook his head as if I were throwing questions at him like a soldier madly hurling bombs. “Seriously, Audrey – did anyone train you?”
I shook my head. “My dad was an ex-cop and insisted I did self-defense classes. And I’m naturally strong. I guess I think quickly on my feet, too?” I added as I brought my hand up and scratched my head nervously. This was like a personal ad. All I needed to say next was that I was a great cook, seriously kind, and fantastic in the bedroom.
Thankfully, I didn’t mention any of those things. I just looked at him.
Though he shook his head, it was in the kind of amused and yet bemused move I was growing to recognize.
“Come on, Audrey,” he managed as he nodded toward the cars. “We have to get out of here.”
“Okay, give me my keys,” I said as I extended a hand.
He considered it and shook his head. “It’s better to travel together for now. When Sandy’s crew come to clean up this mess,” he said as he gestured his head toward the massive mercenary still conked out beside us, “I’ll get him to return Ms. Smith’s car.”
“Okay… but where are we going?”
“Back to my house. It’s easily defendable there.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, defendable? We sound like we’re going to repulse an army,” I said with a falsely light laugh that sounded exactly like the hysterical woman I’d been trying so hard not to channel.
He simply smiled. It was one of those muddled, pressed-lipped, dimpled-chin smiles that made him look like a completely different person – one who didn’t, momentarily at least, care what other people thought about him.
It was yet another window into the mysterious James Chase.
I swallowed. Then I shook my head. “Hold on, what about the postcards that are at Ms. Smith’s house? Surely we need to go and get those.”
He nodded tightly. “We’ll get them on the way.”
“And what about the remaining postcard?” I reminded him as I looked over my shoulder, glancing through the house. “Surely it’s still here.”
“No, Audrey,” he said in a clear tone that you might use on a misbehaving soldier under your command, “this is enough for now. We have to get out of here until Sandy can secure the building. The risk isn’t worth it,” he said, his tone so damn professional, he momentarily sounded like a completely different person.
Though for a flickering moment I wanted to fight him, telling him I hadn’t come this far to give up now, then I reminded myself this postcard had absolutely nothing to do with me. More than that, these international mercenaries with their car chases and tasers had absolutely nothing to do with me, either. This was James’ big hot mess, not mine. So I had to bury my curiosity, which I did with a forced smile.
“Okay. Are you driving?” I asked quickly.
This caused another one of those specific smiles to crumple James’ lips. “Don’t tell me, your father taught you to be a rally driver, too? But yes, I’m driving.”
I arched an eyebrow. “I’m only asking, because you’re a little worse for wear. Didn’t that massive mercenary go to town on your stomach with his fists?”
James winced through a smile. “I’ll be all right,” he said, and there was an undeniable strength about his voice.
I looked right at him, narrowing my eyes, hoping it was damn obvious I was assessing him for ridiculous bravado.
I shrugged. “You’re meant to be the one who understands risk. If you honestly believe you’re okay to drive, then fine. Let’s get out of here.”
He held eye contact and nodded.
I swear ever since James had figured out that I’d taken down all of that mercenary band on my own, he’d been paying a heck of a lot more attention to me. It wasn’t that he’d never looked me in the eye previously, it was just that the way he was looking me in the eye now was so… intimate. No, not like that – he wasn’t undressing me with his gaze. It was just… like he was actually seeing me.
I shook my head as I walked several steps behind him, careful to close and lock the door.
I got the sudden urge to roll up my sleeve and wipe the handle for fingerprints, but I realized that was only the tip of the iceberg. Forensic evidence of my fight with these mercenaries would be everywhere.
“Come on,” James encouraged, and there was an undeniable note of haste in his voice.
I trotted after him.
We reached his Mercedes, got in, and he carefully placed the postcard in a hidden compartment inside the glove box.
As he opened it, I couldn’t help but stare at him. “Jesus Christ, you really are a spy, aren’t you?”
“I told you, Audrey – I’m not a spy.”
“That’s a hidden compartment,” I pointed to it as I waggled my finger like a pontificating judge.
He chuckled under his breath. “Come on.”
“Hold on,” I managed quickly. “Shouldn’t you have a gun?” I couldn’t honestly believe I was saying it, but there was this super-efficient, analytical part of my mind that I could never shut off.
Not surprisingly, James had made me abandon my belts of weapons in the kitchen.
James swore. “I don’t have my head today,” he commented. He stopped the car, rushed around back, yanked open the boot, fiddled with something, then brought out a big silver gun.
My stomach would’ve kicked with nerves if I hadn’t just had the craziest morning ever.
“So that was a gun box,” I commented under my breath.
He flicked his gaze toward me as he got back into the driver’s seat, stashing the gun in one of the drink holders near the gear stick. “You figure that out too, ha? You sure you don’t work for some intelligence agency?”
“I’m not really one for action,” I admitted.
This drew a full-bellied snort from him that could have been heard from outer space. “I think the mercenaries in there would disagree.” With that, he shoved the car into reverse again, turned around in front of the house, and drove down the driveway.
Though I was still blushing at his compliment, that blush quickly died as I realized we were still in the thick of it.
James had already said that there were probably other mercenaries out there. There was every possibility that they would come to check on their buddies when they realized they weren’t in radio contact.
Though James had snorted in my face, I was being honest – I wasn’t one for action. Though apparently I was pretty good at it when I was in the thick of things, after the fact, all I could do was obsess over what had happened.
I brought a finger up and jammed it into my mouth, chewing on the nail despite the fact that was a habit I’d tried for years to get rid of. I had nail polish on, too, and I kept biting off chunks of it and spitting it to the side.
I felt James’ gaze ticking toward me on several occasions, but he didn’t say anything – just watched me carefully.
Slowly, slowly I started to relax as I realized providence was smiling on us and we weren’t going to get in any more car chases.
I turned to him. “You must be pretty well-off,” I commented. “I mean, I imagine an actuary for Lloyd’s is quite well paid. And I guess you get like,” I ticked my gaze to the side as I tried to remember the term, “danger money for being a spy or not-spy, or whatever you are.”
James’ eyebrows peaked and were just visible underneath the large lenses of his reflective shades. “It doesn’t take you long to get back to your usual self, does it?”
“Ha?” I said innocently.
He chuckled again. It was a nice sound. I didn’t get the impression that he was chuckling at my stupidity – just that he was still amazed of me.
Before a pleasant blush could climb my cheeks, I heard it. The sound of an engine behind us.
I jerked my head to the side just as James did the same thing. “Shit, Audrey, they’re here.”
That was all he had to say. The facade I’d managed to construct crumbled.
Because the chase was on again.
Jeremiah’s men meant business.
Though we’d managed to get out of my father’s cottage by the skin of our teeth – or at least, I had, as Audrey seemed completely fine – this time Jeremiah’s men would not play nice.
I heard the screech of tires behind me and the unforgettable roar of a powerful engine as a car shot toward us.
My head began calculating possibilities at a million miles an hour. It was a surprise steam didn’t leak from my ears.
My hands tightened on the wheel, my fingers digging into the yielding leather as I gripped on for all my might.
I caught sight of the car behind us in my rear vision mirror. Black, an SUV, and with tinted windows that were so black you would need a fog light to see inside.
They started firing.
“Bloody hell!” Audrey shrieked.
“Keep your head down,” I roared as I latched a large hand on the back of her head and shoved it forward.
Another bullet slammed overhead.
Audrey screamed again, clamping her hands over her head as she nestled it between her knees.
I dropped the gun into my lap, and now I had one hand free, I scooped it up, twisted around, and started firing. These roads were narrow and wound back and forth like an old mountain goat track. I had to keep half my attention on driving and half my attention on not getting shot.
Because I was right – this time these assholes meant business.
Audrey was shaking all over, but at least she was keeping her head locked against her knees and out of sight.
Despite the fact I was zigzagging across the road, I couldn’t dodge every bullet, and several slammed into the side of my car.
“It’ll be alright,” I managed as I twisted around and fired off several more shots.
I didn’t need to be a genius to realize Audrey didn’t believe me. The look she shot me was enough.
Our car hit a pothole. We were going so fast we began to fishtail. I had to drop my gun as I grabbed both hands on the steering wheel and tried to regain control of the car. Shoulders feeling like they would pop out of my shirt, I pulled the car hard out of the skid.
I lost the gun, though. It tumbled out of my lap and landed next to Audrey.
“Hand me the Magnum. Audrey, hand me the Magnum,” I said in clear, clipped tones, ensuring my voice was audible even over the skid of tires and the constant barrage of fire from behind.
But Audrey didn’t hand me the gun. No, all of a sudden, she got a specific look in her eye. I swore it was like a fire spontaneously starting in dry brush.
Rather than hand me the Magnum, she jerked her head to the side, twisted around in the seat, and brought the gun up.
The wind snatched the headband she was using to keep back her silken, coiffed hair, and it shot out of the car.
Why, then she started firing off some shots of her own.
“Jesus Christ, Audrey, get your head down. Give me the gun,” I spat.
She did not give me back the gun – and neither, thankfully, did she get shot.
Either she was lying to me, and she’d been trained by the SAS or some such, or Audrey simply had a gut for action. Some people did, some people didn’t.
And though sweat plastered her brow as her hair whipped behind her and over her face, she kept weaving and dodging out of the way. She wasn’t the best shot – and I could tell by the way she held the gun that she’d never fired a firearm before, let alone one with as much recoil as a Magnum.
But she was getting the hang of it. What’s more, she didn’t need to be pinpoint accurate – the SUV behind us was large enough that all she needed to do was roughly fire in its direction.
And she was doing a good job.
The bastard was having to swerve all over the place. It’d been a heck of a lot harder for me to drive and shoot behind me at the same time.
I could keep insisting that she handed me the gun, but fuck it. She could clearly handle herself.
“Aim for its tires,” I roared.
Audrey twisted all the way around now, the seatbelt the only thing keeping her locked in the car.
Her dress flapped all the way around her waist and gave me a hell of a view of her thighs, but excuse me for having my attention locked elsewhere.
“Don’t get shot,” I screamed at her. The worry shaking through my tone was 150% genuine.
But Audrey Diamond didn’t get shot.
Steeling her breath and firing like a freaking sniper, she did it. She hit the SUV’s tire. Though the rest of the black beast’s body was armored, its tires weren’t, and as the high-caliber bullet of the Magnum slammed into the rubber, it ruptured. I heard the characteristic screech of tires as a car lost control and fishtailed to the side. Its driver tried to regain control, but couldn’t, and it slammed hard sideways into a tree.
I jerked my head over my shoulder and caught sight of the airbags deploying, and three seriously pissed off mercenaries.
Audrey remained there for several seconds, still twisted around to face the back of the car, the Magnum still held tightly in her hands.
Her hair was whipping in front of her face, her dress still playing around her hips. She looked like a frigging character out of an anime or some pop-culture cartoon. Complete with that perfect little 50s dress with the flare at the waist, her red lipstick, and shall we say admirable bust, she could easily be a 50s pinup for an automobile ad.
“Audrey. Audrey? It’s over,” I tried, voice low and steady.
It took until I reached a hand out and placed it on her arm for her to react.
She shivered slightly, and apparently realized she was turned all the way around in her seat, her hair whipping her cheeks so hard they were red and bright as if she’d rolled around in the snow.
She jerked around and sat, and I was more than gratified when I realized she was carefully holding the gun and not pointing it at her knee. Or worse – me.
She took a breath, brought the gun up, appeared to study it, then found the safety, biting her lip as she flicked it on. “That’s right, isn’t it?”
I nodded, neck as stiff as steel. “That’s right. That’s exactly how you shoot the bad guys off the road.” I found myself chuckling.
She looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and yeah, I could see her cheeks were now bright red with more than wind shear.
She settled the gun in her lap, locked her hands on the seat beside her, half closed her eyes, and took a breath. “Tell me it’s over now, right? Tell me there’s not going to be any more guys on our tail? Right?”
I didn’t answer. Just couldn’t. I had no idea how many men Jeremiah would have put on this job – because I wasn’t sure how much these postcards were worth to him. While Jeremiah would be looking for a purely monetary return, mine was emotional. I’d promised the agency I would return the art to their rightful owners – I promised that I would fix the mistakes of my father. Jeremiah didn’t have that kind of currency wrapped up in this situation. That being said, any goon with a gun and a chance would go after the postcards – for the fabled treasure at the end was astonishing. Finds like this hadn’t come up since the heydays of treasure hunting in the early 20th century.
Again Audrey did a good job of calming down. Though she gripped the seat with all her might and probably snagged the leather with her nails, I didn’t say anything, and I kept a careful eye on her until her shoulders fell from around her ears.
She brought up her hand, rubbed it against her face, then turned to me. “Do you do this type of shit every single day?”
I shrugged. “Mostly on the weekends,” I said.
She shot me the kind of look that told me she wasn’t sure if I was being honest. And hey, I could appreciate how crazy my story sounded. This was the type of crap you got in cheap books from the drugstore. An actuary who worked part-time for a shady British agency without a formal name, all in aid of finding one of the greatest treasures Europe has ever seen? Yeah, I could forgive her for thinking I was full of shit.
Unfortunately for her sanity, I was being honest. And I nodded. I owed her that, after all. She’d now saved my skin on two occasions.
She locked a hand on her considerable bosom and took several calming breaths. Though I shouldn’t have to convince myself that Audrey wasn’t my type, I kind of found myself a little distracted by the view of her chest heaving in and out. So distracted, I almost took the wrong turn when we reached a T intersection.
“Ms. Smith’s that way,” Audrey pointed out automatically as I almost hooked a right.
“Yep,” I said. Shit. She kept distracting me. Or at least something kept distracting me. Because when Audrey wasn’t here, I swore I was better than this.
Though I could tell she had million and one questions to ask, she was silent. I wasn’t sure if it was the come down after adrenaline, or whether she was starting to realize maybe she didn’t want to know the answers. After all, she was obviously a very clever girl. Possibly clever enough to appreciate that if she followed her curiosity on this one, she would only be pulled further into this crappy world.
Suffice to say, I did not drive right up to Ms. Smith’s house. I parked along a mostly abandoned and unused laneway several blocks away. There I pulled up the roof of the car, ditched my jacket, grabbed a rain jacket and a hat from the boot, and changed my glasses.
I could see Audrey watching me the entire time, her rather plush lips pursed into a confused half frown, half smile. “Do you always have a complete change of clothes in the back of your car? Is that part of the spy protocol?”
“It’s a rain jacket. Funnily enough, it’s for keeping the rain off me,” I answered.
She blinked at me prettily. “As if you own a jacket like that. I’m sure you only shop at the most expensive stores. That makes you look cheap,” she commented.
I couldn’t help but snort with laughter. “You really don’t have a mouth filter, do you?”
Her cheeks began to touch with red, then she shook her head. “I speak my mind, sure. But so do you,” she pointed out.
I put my hands up, raising them in surrender. “On that, we can agree. Now, shouldn’t we concentrate?”
She nodded her head stiffly.
She also brought her hands up and locked them on her hips. “Now, I guess it’s going to be a better idea for me to walk in alone. Hopefully, hopefully these bad guys don’t think I’m working with you. Yet. I think it’s going to be less suspicious if you stay outside and keep watch in your,” she brought a hand up and down indicating my outfit, “1950s inspired spy disguise.”
I snorted. “How do you come up with this shit?”
“TV. But you’ve got to admit, that kind of looks like a trench coat, all you need now is one of those heavy brimmed hats, some dark shades, and one of those massive spy glasses in your pocket.”
I shook my head. “Audrey, can we focus?” I pointed out, even though she was the one who was usually telling me to focus.
She took a breath, and I realized for the first time that her incessant chatting was hiding her fear.
I got it, too. Because though it looked like this was all coming easily to her, this was still a whole new world for Audrey Diamond.
Still, with only one more tight breath, she turned hard on her flat shoes, neatened her hair with a single expert pat, and moved forward.
She walked confidently, not looking suspicious and yet at the same time not looking particularly casual.
And that was hard. It was one of the first things my father had told me. You could tell someone who was tailing you a mile off, because they were trying too hard to look natural. They’d slouch, they’d scratch their head, they’d play with something in their pocket – but they wouldn’t look natural.
Audrey just looked like Audrey.
I was struck again by the fact she was practically made for my world.
It didn’t take long to reach Ms. Smith’s house. Audrey walked up to the door and knocked.
I stayed back along the opposite side of the street, kind of hanging around a large van on the premise of checking my phone. I ensured my back was angled to the door when Ms. Smith answered so she didn’t recognize me and announce my presence to the entire street.
Audrey didn’t even look around and make eye contact with me as she entered the house.
See what I mean? Natural professional.
What happened next was nerve-wracking. Which was unusual, because there wasn’t that much that was nerve-wracking for me. Like I’d said on many previous occasions, I liked to think I had a cold, calculating mind. The perfect actuary – the perfect spy. I sit back, assess the situation, come up with the risk calculation, and let that determine my actions.
But there was something missing from that equation – what my heart was doing as it pounded hard in my chest.
This was all up to Audrey.
Though I was pretty sure no one from my father’s cottage had tracked us here, there was every possibility that they could figure out who Audrey was and where she was staying, and they were now going around the back.
And yet, though I was unquestionably nervous, I still had to give Audrey credit.
She clearly thought quickly on her feet, and she wasn’t your usual damsel in distress. Heck, despite everything that had happened to her today, she’d never shown any indication of hysteria.
I stood there, waiting, my breath short and sharp in my chest until finally, finally Audrey ducked out of the house.
She was wearing new clothes – her torn jeans, a pretty nondescript black top, a jacket, a different hat, and some sunglasses, and had a bag thrown over her shoulder.
Though she was still technically the same Audrey underneath, I had to give her credit again – she did look different.
In my head, I’d already associated Audrey Diamond with her flamboyant 50s style.
You could easily pass her on the street.
Rather than walk right up to me and give my cover away, she continued along the same side of pavement for several blocks, heading back to my car. Though we hadn’t agreed that that’s what we were going to do, again, Audrey didn’t need any instruction.
She didn’t turn around until she reached my car.
Even then, she waited until we were inside until she unhooked her bag from her arm, placed it on her lap, and patted it protectively. “The other three are in here. Now we just have to find out where the fifth one is,” she pointed out.
No, it hadn’t escaped my attention that there was still one remaining postcard out there. Probably back at the house.
And though I’d told – no, promised – Audrey that Sandy and his team would secure the house, I wasn’t so sure. Like I’d said on many occasions now, I was clearly underestimating Jeremiah’s men.
I drove in silence, headed to my house, and as I did, I kept my senses peeled. Every single car I passed I assessed, from the build of the driver, to the make, to the way they were driving.
Though I didn’t see any vehicles or drivers who looked like they could be tracking us, I never eased. Not one little bit. By the time I parked outside my house, I swore I was as tense as a tightly coiled spring.
Audrey didn’t say a word, just got out of the car, hooked the bag over her arm, then deftly checked the street left-and-right on the premise of flicking her hair over her shoulder.
Like I’d said on several occasions now – a natural.
We walked toward the front gate. And that would be when I heard the one thing I didn’t want to hear.
And no, it wasn’t a grumpy assed mercenary growling for me to get my hands up.
It was a distraction.
An unnecessary one.
“James, there you are. I’ve been calling you since last night. The girls want to catch up,” Bethany said as she sashayed into view from further down the street.
Fortunately, I’d fixed up the bloody gash in my brow before leaving my car, and with the thick rain jacket on, I didn’t immediately look like I’d just been in a run for my life.
I immediately brought a hand up and thumbed my nose. To those who knew me well, it was a move that displayed my tension. And that same tension was now climbing my back and sinking hard into my gut. “Bethany. Yes, I got your calls. Sorry, I’ve been a little distracted.”
Bethany, with her 6-foot form, model good looks, and clothes to match, swiveled her gaze between me and Audrey, and there was a clear and present question on her face. “Distracted by what?”
I had to play this extremely carefully. Though I’d really only known Audrey for two days now, those two days had been pretty intense and had given me a window into her life. A large enough window that I could guarantee how she would react if Bethany kept baiting her. You see, Audrey Diamond was not the kind of girl who needed others to fight her battles for her.
Sure enough, she reached a hand out, placed it on the fence, and hooked the other hand on her hip. She didn’t say anything, just smiled placidly. And by placid, I meant about as placid as a falsely calm lake that hid Nessie beneath.
“You can’t be that busy, James.” Bethany pouted. This time she shot Audrey a direct look. “Who is this woman, anyway? Some waif you’ve picked up? Sorry, I mean some stray,” Bethany said pointedly. “Definitely not a waif.”
There was an English saying. Waifs and strays were people who didn’t have a home/family. If you had a Christmas party and invited all of your single friends without family, they were waifs and strays. Waif, however, also meant thin people.
So I knew exactly what Bethany was intimating.
And so did Audrey.
I cleared my throat.
Which was wrong – I should’ve told Bethany to stop being rude before Audrey jumped in and did it herself.
Because that’s exactly what she did. She pushed off from the wall, clasped her hands in front of herself, and tilted her hips to one side as she showed off her curves. “Don’t worry dear, I’m not a waif or a stray. I’m his girlfriend,” she said, a clear smile curling her ruby red lips.
Bethany looked as if she wanted to swallow her tongue.
To be honest, I wasn’t a lot better.
I did not, however, snort.
Bethany let her bottom jaw kind of unhinge as she looked at me. “This is a joke, right?”
“Nope. And sorry, sweetie, we’re busy. James is going to show me his house – and I’m just so excited to see the bedroom.”
I stopped myself from letting out a strangled cough.
Audrey looped an arm around mine, tugged me toward the gate, offered an over-the-shoulder perfunctory wave to Bethany, and strode toward the house.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Bethany stalk off.
By the time we reached the door, Audrey dropped my arm, took a step back, and kind of shifted her hand about as if she’d just touched something disgusting.
Slowly, pointedly, I shifted my head to look at her. “Was that necessary?”
She shot me a defensive look, her chin tilting up as her face was framed by those perpetually rosy, plump cheeks. “You wanted to get rid of her – but you clearly didn’t have the skills. We don’t have time to stand around and chat to model types,” she chastised.
I let out the tiniest, tiniest little chuckle. I didn’t know if it was exasperated, impressed, or something in between.
Audrey started to look uncomfortable and scratched her leg, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I mean, it was effective, wasn’t it? I didn’t really mean…. oh, whatever. Just let’s get this done.”
I looked at her meaningfully. “Yes, let’s.”
With that, I had to try really hard not to hold my arm out to her. Because, for some reason, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to offer her my elbow like a gentleman just to see what shade of pink she’d flush.
I unlocked the door, let it swing open, and I took a breath.
Because despite recent distractions, shit was about to get real.
What was I on? No, really, what was I on? Why the hell had I told that model type that I was James’ girlfriend?
Though I was still a little addled from my adrenaline-fueled morning, I hadn’t had a lobotomy. But I’d said it. And I’d said it because… because I wanted to see how he would react. It had been a test for him. And though, admittedly, it’d proved to be mightily effective in getting Bethany to shift off, it’d still been a completely crazy thing to say.
Rather than appearing completely insulted, James had just looked amused.
The only thing stopping my cheeks from roasting out of embarrassment was the fact we were now in James’ house. It wasn’t just the curiosity factor of seeing his home. Nope, tightness looped around my middle as I realized that while what had happened out on the pavement had been a sweet, frigging embarrassing little interlude, the main game was back on.
“We should have a look at the four cards,” I said, slipping back into my dictatorial mode. It wasn’t that I got a particular kick out of telling James what to do – though that was a large part of it – it was mostly that I liked to keep things driving forward. My father had often pointed out that everyone always knew what to do around me, because I would never let them forget.
“There’s no point. It will be irrelevant without the fifth,” James said, voice dropping with clear disappointment.
I stopped. I mean dead. You could have dropped an anvil on my shoulders, and I would’ve remained exactly where I was, as stiff as a beanpole.
Immediately James jerked over his shoulder, eyes growing wide with fear. “What?” he demanded. He also yanked his head from left-to-right, surveying the corridor as he obviously looked for signs of attack.
With a slightly shaking hand, I brought up my arm and pointed at the hall mirror next to me.
“What?” James’ tone changed from one of expectant fear to confusion. “It’s a mirror. You have seen one before, haven’t you?”
“The postcard,” I said, voice so quiet, I could barely be heard.
He shifted his full gaze toward it, and though a sad expression crossed his face, he still shrugged. “It’s just a postcard. It’s not the fifth,” he said.
I looked at him, stiff finger still pointed at it. “Yes, it is,” I said clearly.
“Audrey – my father sent me this postcard the day he died. It’s not…” he trailed off, obviously realizing just how shocked my expression was. He shifted his full attention toward it, then he reached a hand out and plucked it carefully from where it was jammed into the mirror frame. “It’s just a postcard,” he tried once more.
I shifted in close to him, so caught up by the possibility that I’d found the fifth postcard that I didn’t really care as my arm brushed up against his.
Maybe he cared – maybe he darted his gaze down toward me – but he didn’t move back.
“Flip it around,” I instructed with a twist of my hand.
He obliged. I stabbed a finger right into the top corner. “Look at that – V/V. It’s right up in the corner. It’s really small, but it’s there.”
James didn’t question again. He brought the postcard up, scrunched his eyes as he squinted, then slowly let one of his eyebrows draw up. “Okay. I can see it. But why do you—”
“Because the same Roman numerals appear on the other postcards. Quick, bring it to the kitchen,” I said excitedly, actually fanning a hand in front of myself.
This brought a slightly amused smile to James’ cheeks.
I shifted automatically toward the door to my left. I half opened it.
“That’s not the kitchen, Audrey. That’s my bedroom. And though I’ve already heard you’d love to see it, maybe another time.”
Oh… okay. Damn.
Had he just flirted with me?
The self-deprecating part of my mind that told me that men who looked like James Chase would never flirt with women like me suddenly got shoved to the side. You see, I didn’t have a problem with my size, and I didn’t particularly care that prissy-looking perfect boys like James wouldn’t give women like me a second look.
That being said, I couldn’t exactly stop my stomach from kicking hard as James thankfully took several steps ahead of me and I filed into place behind him.
I would have given anything to catch sight of his face – to see if he was laughing into his hand or just shooting me another one of those disarming smiles.
Though our confusing interaction could have distracted me for a while, we didn’t have time. A fact I reminded myself as I shrugged my bag from my shoulder, shoved a hand inside, and reverently withdrew the postcards.
James still had the other postcard we’d recovered from the shed in Grimsby’s cottage.
We reached the kitchen table, which was covered in crap.
Rather than shift forward and neatly pack up all of the junk, James just locked a hand on the table and swept the junk onto the floor. Everything from takeaway cases to newspapers to a strange dented old paint can clattered onto the tile.
“You know, you could have just placed the objects somewhere else,” I said pointedly.
He looked up at me from underneath his eyebrows. And darn me if it wasn’t one of the hottest moves I’d ever seen. “Audrey Diamond, I think you’ll find that when I want something, I don’t hang around. Now put the postcards down here.”
Was that… was that a double entendre? Could he have been talking to me? The stupid, irrational, but nonetheless extremely excited part of my mind thought that – the rational part of me pushed her away.
I cleared my throat properly, and possibly primly, and I placed the postcards in their sleeves neatly on the table. Though James placed his postcard down too, they were in the wrong order, and I quickly snatched them off him and laid the postcards out in the order that was written on their backs.
He arched an eyebrow. “What are you doing?”
“This is the first one, and this is the second, third, fourth, and fifth,” I said as I pointed to each in turn. “Keep up,” I instructed with a wobble of my head.
Though this could have elicited a sarcastic comment from him, it didn’t. He took a step back from the table, crossed his arms, and tilted his head to the side, his gaze darting from left-to-right as he tried to assess what the postcards meant.
I did the same, taking a step beside him and locking my hands on my hips as I tilted my head to the opposite direction.
“These postcards are meant to lead to a specific location or locations, right?” I said, pretty much for my own benefit as I repeated what I knew out loud.
Rather than simply asking him if he knew what he was doing, I assumed he didn’t.
I shifted forward, pressed my hands into the table, and scrunched my bottom lip between my teeth.
The pictures on the postcards depicted random locations around the globe. “Are you sure we can’t do a reverse image search?” I said.
“Absolutely. We need to figure this out without the use of anything that can be traced. The… people who’re interested in this have considerable skills,” he revealed.
I shot him a kind of freaked out look, and he shrugged.
“Right,” I said in a no-nonsense tone that was nonetheless now a full pitch higher.
I methodically picked up each postcard in turn. I looked at them, assessing them with every analytical skill I had.
When I was done, James snatched them from me and tried to arrange them in different orders, as if he thought they formed a puzzle.
“I don’t think that’s how they fit together,” I said.
He turned over his shoulder. “I’m the professional here,” he said.
I smiled at him snidely. “Finders keepers. I found four of those postcards. And technically, I found the fifth – as you didn’t know what you had.”
He leaned back against the table, locking one hand on the wood as he rested the other on his thigh. He also tilted his head to the side slowly. “You going to fight the spy for them, Audrey?” he asked in a flat but nonetheless cheeky tone.
Thankfully I controlled my cheeks, kind of shimmied my shoulders to the side, and shot him a sarcastic look. “Does the spy know what he’s doing?”
His jaw stiffened, and he laughed around it. “Does Miss Diamond?”
“I told you, don’t say my name like that. It makes me sound like a stripper.”
And you know what else? Yeah, again his eyes ticked toward my cleavage. Was that like three times already?
It didn’t matter.
Because I had to focus, didn’t I?
“Focus, Audrey,” I told myself firmly.
Then I turned around, set my hands on my hips, and thought.
And that’s when I saw it. I plucked up the first postcard, then the second.
Though both postcards showed apparently nondescript sections of coastline or mountains, there was a focal point within each.
“James, James,” I said as I shook my hand excitedly, pretty much bobbing on the spot like a buoy in a storm, “give me a magnifying glass. Do it now.”
He snorted. He still stood straight and leaned in close to me, staring at the postcard I was assessing. “Firstly, I don’t have a magnifying glass – I’m not that kind of spy. Secondly, what the hell are you looking at?” he asked in a professional tone.
“Just give me your phone. Mine is still in my bag, and my bag’s still at Grimsby’s.”
Surprisingly, James didn’t question. He shoved a hand into his pocket, pulled out his phone, unlocked it, and handed it to me.
I opened the magnifying glass app and started to scrutinize the postcard.
I’d been right. This postcard was not ordinary. The print was extremely high quality and had a high-density of pixels. Enough that as I zoomed into the picture, I saw exactly what I was looking for.
“Shit yes,” I muttered to myself as I dumped the first postcard back on the table and plucked up the second.
“Audrey, though I’m happy to wait here with bated breath, tell me what the hell you’re looking for,” James snapped, tone tight with expectation.
I shimmied my shoulders again. Sorry, it was just something I did when I was excited. And excuse me for being seriously freaking excited.
“Audrey,” James said once more.
I handed him the first postcard and gave him back his phone. “There’s something that contains location data in each photo,” I said. “Look, see for yourself. There’s one of those telescopic tourist devices you get along promenades in the first postcard.”
He looked like a scientist as he assessed the postcard carefully, bringing the phone up and down, a frown pressing further across his lips until it looked as if it would cut his chin in half.
Finally he let the postcard drop. He managed to shoot me a look in between picking up the second postcard and assessing it carefully. And it was the kind of look I had absolutely no idea what it meant.
Was he impressed?
Was he a little angry that I was better at his job than he was?
Was he thinking of offering me an apprenticeship?
Who frigging knows. The only thing that was certain was how damn excited I felt.
Though the majority of the business of being a historian was paperwork and boring collections, this was different.
This was on the edge.
And I have to say, I liked it.
James assessed each single postcard in turn until he finally placed them neatly down on the table, returned his phone to his pocket, and looked at me. “You’re right. There’s something with location data on it in every postcard,” he said point-blank. “What are you, bionic or something?” he followed up immediately.
I blinked prettily, not knowing where he was going with that. I shook my shoulders. “I’m not a government experiment, if that’s what you’re indicating.”
He snorted, gesturing with one of the postcards. “How the hell did you see that?”
I blushed. “I didn’t see it to begin with. I was simply alerted to the fact that there must be more in the photos because they are very high resolution. And the printing,” I brought a hand down and tapped it neatly next to the first postcard, “is nonstandard. It’s very high detail. These are not some postcards your father picked up in a random souvenir shop. He got them printed specifically for this task.” I shrugged. “I figured there had to be something else in the photos. And boom, I found the telescopic device in the first.”
James kept assessing me as if he honestly expected me to throw my hands up and admit that yes, I was a bionic woman.
Then he took a tight breath. “Well, shit,” he began, and his shoulders started to deflate. A certain kind of look began to burn in his eyes, and again I didn’t exactly know what it meant. But I could figure it out, couldn’t I?
Because this was it for James. He’d found the postcards – sorry, I’d found the postcards and he’d found me – that he’d been looking for since his father’s death. And you didn’t need to be an emotional genius or psychiatrist to figure out that these postcards meant much more to James than clearing his father’s name.
Nope, these were some kind of archetypal journey for him. A journey where he could figure out who he finally was without his father. Or something like that.
I began to pluck at my lip. “… So… what happens now?”
“Now I call Sandy.” James shoved a hand into his pocket and extracted his phone.
My brow crumpled hard over my eyes. “I kind of meant with me,” I pointed out. “I mean… is this where we have to say goodbye? Do I… just go back to Ms. Smith, call Jeffrey, say I can’t complete cataloging the collection because there are far too many mercenaries in the hallway… and just… go back to my normal life?”
James had been halfway through pressing the phone to his ear, and he stopped.
Slowly, he placed it down on the table and shot me a meaningful look. “Believe me when I say this, Audrey, you don’t want to be in this world.”
I pressed my lips over my teeth. “Not cut out for it, ha?”
This elicited a full-bodied snort from James, and again it gave me the impression that momentarily he didn’t care what he looked like. Because it wasn’t exactly an attractive move, to say the least. “Cut out for this world? You’re perfectly cut out for this world. You have great instincts, Audrey. You also are smart, aren’t you? And I bet you can tell that it’s better to tap-out now than never.” He kept looking at me, and as he did, second-by-second, all traces of amusement disappeared from his gaze until it was just grave.
My stomach chose that exact moment to leap into my mouth, and I bit my bottom lip hard.
… He was right, wasn’t he? Though I could fight him on this – though I could insist that he take me along for the ride considering I’d found the postcards and I was clearly a natural at this – what exactly would that achieve?
Only several hours ago I’d been stealthily climbing a ladder after having tasered a guy and gagging him.
That was not how I liked to spend my weekends.
James was so very right – I was smart, and smart people don’t need to prove themselves. Smart people don’t need the thrill of adventure to make them appreciate that they’re alive. Smart people? They leave that to the guys with something to prove. Just like James.
I felt my shoulders cave a little, and I brought up a hand, latched it on my shoulder, and kind of patted it there. “I guess you’re right,” I said in a quiet tone.
“There’s no guessing about it. But as for right now,” James tipped his head back and appeared to assess the house and the yard outside quietly, “I think it’s probably just safer to stay here until Sandy contacts the team. You alright with that?”
I didn’t hesitate – I nodded. “What about you? What are you going to do?”
James didn’t answer. He half raised an eyebrow, and excuse me if it was one of the suavest moves I’d ever seen.
Move over James Bond, you now had the rightful competition of James Chase.
Tilting his head and indicating for me to follow, he walked toward one of the rooms branching from the kitchen.
As he opened the door, I realized it was a library. And bloody hell was it well appointed.
I had a thing for rare books, see. It wasn’t just that I made the majority of my living selling them on the Internet. No, I just loved knowledge. More than that, the way it had been packaged and enshrined over the centuries. The different bindings, the different type sets, the different fonts. The different words and manners of speech. I adored it all. And as I briskly scanned each wall of this packed library, I practically salivated.
I heard James chuckle from behind me. “Is it really that impressive?”
I turned and planted a hand on my hip, shooting him a disapproving look. “You shouldn’t have to ask that. In your line of work, you should realize this collection is worth a packet,” I said, letting my voice draw out in a long whistle.
“Well, you can sell it if I ever get around to disposing of it,” he said offhand.
I pressed my lips together and looked at him out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to retract his statement. When he didn’t, I cleared my throat. “Except we’re never going to see each other again, are we? After today, we’re going to be quits,” I said, kind of mumbling as I locked my hands behind my back and held them, not making any eye contact.
James cleared his throat.
Then he pushed away the distraction, walked up to the bookshelves, looked at them for a bit, and finally made his selection.
There was a large, polished, inlaid coffee table in the middle of the room with two button-back, tan, appreciably worn Chesterfields sitting around it.
James motioned me over.
He’d already plucked up the five postcards from the table in the kitchen and had neatly arranged them in front of us.
I looked from the atlas to the postcards. “So we’re going to do this old school?” I said as I scrunched my nose up.
“Old school is always the best. Hardest to track. And trust me, in this world, that’s the key to everything. Any two-bit hacker with a half-decent connection can make a run for your information. The best thing to do is to keep it written down or to simply remember it.”
“Thanks for the tip, James,” I said, saying James in a Sean Connery-esque voice.
James simply raised an eyebrow in that way he so often did when he was indicating that he was not amused.
Then he got down to business.
I quickly got bored waiting for James to find things, and I pushed up, found my own atlas, and got to work.
I hated to admit this, but we worked well together. Despite the fact I hated him – okay, kind of mostly hated him but also had a begrudging respect for what he’d been through – we were very comfortable in each other’s silence. Which is rare. So much rarer than you think. Even friends who have known each other for years can sometimes feel awkward with simple chit chat.
The two of us, we got down to work.
It wasn’t too long until I slapped my own atlas closed and shifted forward on the Chesterfield, shooting James a grim look. “Let’s get this straight. According to what you’ve said, when you find all five postcards and bring them together, they lead you straight to the… treasure,” I said after an uncomfortable swallow.
James leaned up, shifted back in his chair, looking weary from the work, and he nodded. I also couldn’t forget that he was injured. Though he’d quickly patched himself up before we left Grimsby’s, there was still a bandage on his noggin and his ribs would hurt like hell.
“Yes, that’s what I figured out.”
I brought a hand up. “Sorry – you figured it out. Nobody told you this. It wasn’t in any of your correspondences from your father?”
Again James raised an eyebrow. “Were you a field marshal in a different life?”
I shot him a sweet smile. “No, but as you keep pointing out, I’m a natural in this world. And as you also keep pointing out, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions without evidence.” I did it again, I let my voice drop into the same sanctimonious tone he’d used on me.
He simply pressed his lips together, smiled, brought a hand up, and locked his chin on it warily.
“Why would your father make it that easy?” I said out of the blue.
Though it had appeared at first that James would be content to ignore me, now he stiffened. He also let his hand drop and sat straighter in the chair. “What do you mean? You think this is easy?” He snorted with exasperated derision as he brought a hand up and indicated the bandage on his head.
I also brought a hand up in a placating motion and shook my head. “No, this wasn’t easy. But nor did it require anything particularly special. If that,” I took a breath and dropped my voice low in respect, “letter we found up near the picnic area is anything to go by, your father actually wanted you to find this treasure. I don’t… I don’t want to step on your toes,” I said, trying to be polite and yet at the same time trying to hammer home my point, “but if your father set this up specifically for you to find it, I doubt he would have simply secreted four postcards around Huddleston and left it at that.”
“But he didn’t,” James said. His voice was completely unreadable and so too was his expression. “He sent me the fifth postcard, remember?”
“Yes,” I let out an exasperated sigh of my own, “that’s not my point. My point is your father would have been fully aware of how many other people are after this treasure. If all it would take to find it was the five postcards, then Jeffrey could have come across it, right? After all, your father left the cottage to Jeffrey, didn’t he? And all it would have taken was for Jeffrey to find the postcards then stroll through your house, see the postcard you kept by the mirror, and Jeffrey would be laughing.”
James’ jaw stiffened. You had to be looking at him as carefully as I did, but I saw it.
“Who exactly is Jeffrey, anyway?” I suddenly got sidetracked.
“That’s a conversation for another time,” James said pointedly.
I didn’t bother to say that there wouldn’t be another time – as this would be it for us. I pressed my lips together and assessed him.
He looked like he wanted to dismiss what I was saying, but halfway through shaking his head, he stopped. “Where are you going with this, exactly?”
“I don’t think bringing the five postcards together is going to lead us straight to the treasure,” I said.
He paused. “Us?”
“Slip of the tongue,” I said quickly as I darted my gaze off him and settled it on the postcards. I took another breath. “Bear with me. What if there are more steps to this journey? I mean. I had a good look at all five postcards—” I leaned forward and tapped it, fully aware that James’ gaze darted down to my cleavage as I shifted forward before he cleared his throat and looked at the postcard instead. It was my turn to clear my throat. “And there must be a reason they’re numbered. What if we have to do them in order? You know, go to the first location, find the clues there, and then move on to the next?”
I said we again, but this time he didn’t pick me up on it. This time, he simply narrowed his gaze as he looked at me, drew a hand up, and locked his stiff fingers along his equally stiff jaw. “Keep going,” he said.
I took another tight breath. I felt a little like I was being assessed here. It was as if this was a job interview that could determine my future career. And hey, maybe it could. But then I had to remind myself that after Sandy and his team came, I would be saying goodbye to James Chase forever.
So I took another breath. I flipped the first postcard over and tapped the numbering system in the corner. “These wouldn’t be here for no reason. This is the only thing that makes sense.”
James didn’t move a muscle. He just kept those piercing eyes locked on me. “Is that it?”
I blushed a little, straightened in my chair, and clasped my hands in my lap as if I were an indignant aristocrat. “It’s better than your theory,” I pointed out defensively.
“Which is what, exactly?” James kept that unreadable but still deadly gaze locked on me. “You can’t read minds as well, can you, Audrey Diamond?” he asked as he unlocked his hands from his jaw, clasped them together, and leaned forward.
“I wouldn’t think there’s that much in your mind to read,” I said sarcastically, dropping quickly into the same manner I’d used to deal with James the first time we met.
He let out the smallest snort of laughter. “Never miss an opportunity to stick the knife in, do you?”
I pressed my lips together and offered a halfhearted snarl. “Never miss an opportunity to distract me, do you, James?”
“James? What happened to Mr. Prick?”
“Good point, Mr. Good-looking prick,” I said, accidentally using my full derogatory name for him.
Which was such a mistake. Because while we’d been engaging in a little witty repartee up until that point, now he tilted his head all the way to the side. “You think I’m good-looking, Miss Diamond?” he said in a falsely innocent tone that was designed to get one reaction.
And there we go – it worked. An enormous blush began to climb my cheeks, but there was no way I was going to sit here and let him enjoy the view.
Instead, I got up primly and walked toward the bookshelf to our side.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Assessing your father’s collection. I bet you there’s something more here. After all, your father left you this house and that postcard,” I said, gesturing to it over my shoulder without actually turning so James could see my full-scale flush. “He left Jeffrey the cottage to make it hard for you, but the key to finding the treasure must be here,” I pointed out.
I heard James get up. He took several steps and stopped behind me. “You’re tenacious, aren’t you? Kind of remind me of a pit bull.”
That would have been the perfect opportunity to turn, clench my teeth, and give him a rigid smile, but I cleared my throat instead. “The mark of a good historian is to keep going until you find all the facts. Now, you may not believe my theory, but help me search through these books nonetheless,” I commanded.
“I never said I didn’t believe your theory,” his voice dropped down a little.
I was so surprised I actually turned to him, no longer the bashful school girl. “What? You actually believe me?”
He shrugged. “Makes sense. Now you point it out, that is how my father would think. He—” James took a heavy breath that brought all my attention to his chest. And no, I wasn’t perving on his perfect pecs, prominent underneath his preppy polo shirt. I was drawn in by how suddenly weak his strong body seemed whenever he mentioned his father. “One of the first lessons he taught us was that valuable things don’t come cheap. You have to earn them with sweat and tears.”
I blinked politely in that way you do when someone overshares. I ticked my lip to the side. “Who’s us?”
I’d seen James stiffen on many occasions. Considering he was a wall of muscle, it was pretty easy to see when his body tightened with stress. But I had never seen anything like this. The exact way his neck and jaw muscles clenched was as if he was trying to crush nuts or hey, ball bearings. “My brother. But I wouldn’t ask me about him – you wouldn’t like to know the story.”
Though I was frightfully good at bulldozing my way into people telling me what I wanted to know, I could read the situation. While James obviously had daddy issues as high as the Empire State building, his brother issues apparently eclipsed that.
So I cleared my throat and concentrated on the bookshelf. “I doubt there’s enough information on that postcard alone to find its location – without reverse image analysis,” I said pointedly. “We need something else. If only we had a compass or something,” I said conversationally.
I could still see James out of the corner of my eye, even if he had turned toward the library shelves. I watched his cheeks pale.
I whirled on him. “Hold on, what did you retrieve from the picnic area?”
It was something I’d only thought about a few times, as I’d been pretty distracted by other events, thank you very much. It was a fact that now seemed more important than any other.
James immediately looked defensive. So I whacked a hand on my hip. “You went up there to retrieve something. And I might be guessing this, but I imagine it was Sandy who sent you up there in the first place. I know you got something – because I saw it in your pocket when you got into the car. It was small, looked roundish, and was probably largish considering the way it made your pants’ pocket rumple,” I concluded.
“Alright, Sherlock Holmes,” James said in that same half exasperated, half amused tone he was using on me more and more, “you win. I did retrieve something at the picnic grounds. But, Audrey, haven’t you forgotten something?”
I brought a hand up and scratched my chin. “I don’t think so. First there are the postcards, then there’s—” I began, listing off the facts I knew like a court reporter.
He looked at me pointedly. “You’re tapping-out of this world,” he said in a low, serious tone, “remember?”
My stomach sank. “Oh. I am, aren’t I?”
James pressed his lips together and nodded. But then? Then I swore I saw a spark in his eyes.
And just like a dog after a bone, I had to leap for it. “You found a compass, didn’t you?” I said, going with my intuition, even if James the actuary would’ve pointed out I had absolutely no evidence to justify my claim. But I didn’t need evidence – I just needed the way he reacted to my suggestion.
Again his face said it all. I don’t know if this shadowy government agency with no-name had trained James in the art of espionage and holding onto state secrets, but he sure as shit wasn’t very good at holding onto secrets around me. One look at those perfect eyes, and I’d easily be able to see what he was thinking.
I pressed my hands together and practically jiggled on the spot in excitement. “You did find a compass, didn’t you? That has to be the clue. Using that with the first postcard, you’ll be able to find the next location.”
“Audrey,” he put a hand up, and there was a seriousness about it. “You need to stop. I get it, you’re excited. You think it’s fun. At this stage,” he said, saying every word slowly and with punctuated blasts of breath. “But you’re a smart girl, remember? And the more you allow yourself to be pulled into this world, the worse it will be for you. Just tap-out,” he said for the millionth time. “I’ll get this sorted, I promise.”
My shoulders deflated all the way down. He wasn’t going to budge anymore, was he? Though he had the means to find the next location, he just wasn’t going to let me know where it was.
… Which is a good thing, you idiot – I told myself firmly.
Listen to him. He may be a good-looking smooth prick who spent the last several days infuriating you, but he’s got a point. He’s also letting you escape while you can.
I brought my hands up and patted my hair in a half-hearted motion. And I opened my mouth.
But I closed it. Because there was a tinkling of glass from the kitchen.
I just had time to let my eyes open wide, to have the blood drain from my cheeks. Then James? He pointed right at me, gestured toward one of the Chesterfields, and mouthed, “hide.”
Because they were here.
I’d allowed myself to be distracted. Talk about an idiot.
If it weren’t for Audrey, I would’ve kept on my toes, I would have secured the boundaries, I would’ve mounted a defense. Instead? Instead I let her pull me off track with her ridiculously good analytical skills.
Just before I had the opportunity to truly appreciate that she’d just solved the first clue and had pretty much handed me the next location, my world came crashing down.
I had no time at all to appreciate that the last four months of grueling work would soon pay off.
Because they were here.
Though a part of me expected Audrey would ignore me, and rather than hide behind one of the large wingback Chesterfields, she would come out guns blazing, she shot me a pale-faced look, turned around, and skulked behind the chair. Not before mouthing, “be careful.”
Fortunately, I still had my gun on me. I wasn’t a complete idiot. It was tucked into the back of my pants. As I whipped my rain jacket off, careful not to let the rustling fabric make too much noise, I pulled out the gun, straightened my shoulders, shored up my stance, ignored the weakness in my stomach, and got ready.
There was another tinkling of glass – this time from the front of the house.
Shit, these guys were going to make this public, weren’t they? Though Jeremiah’s men usually operated in the dark, obviously he was done keeping things secret. Obviously he’d realized how damn close I was to figuring out where the treasure was, and he’d decided now would be his last opportunity to act.
Though my mind should be on the game, though I should be pushing away emotion and concentrating instead on the cold certainty of action, I couldn’t. My mind kept ticking back to the pale-faced, truly fearful look Audrey had shot me before she’d hidden behind the chesterfield.
She was still in the house. She was still in the frigging house. And though she got lucky at the cottage, and she admittedly had some natural skill when it came to action, Jeremiah wouldn’t be playing around anymore. No more tasers. No more surprised mercenaries.
These guys would be true professionals.
And that would be when the lights flickered out.
Though it was technically daytime, it was overcast, and when I walked into the library – owing to the fact it only had one small window – I’d turned the lights on.
The lights flickered out.
And, worse, the motion sensors I’d set up around the house.
My alarm systems wouldn’t get tripped. Great.
I had to play this so very carefully. I couldn’t afford to inch out of the half-open door until I knew no one had a gun pointed my way.
This was an unwinnable situation.
But that would be when Audrey shifted out from behind the Chesterfields and made a short but sharp hand motion my way. She pointed toward the window, brought up two fingers, and mouthed, “outside.”
She also crawled forward on her hands and knees, gently tipped the walnut coffee table, and caught all five postcards as they came rattling off.
She was careful and thankfully didn’t make a sound.
Shit again. Shit a thousand times over. I’d clean forgotten about the five postcards neatly lined up on the goddamn table.
Why was it that whenever Audrey was near, I lost the ability to get things done?
Carefully, so freaking silent she was like an apparition, Audrey grabbed her atlas, which was sitting on her chair, carefully placed all five postcards inside, crawled over to the nearest bookcase, and pushed the book inside.
It was the smartest thing to do.
At least it would buy us some time.
If – or when – Jeremiah’s men caught up with us, they would kill us if we had the postcards. Because that’s all they were after. If we didn’t have the postcards – we could buy ourselves some time.
Slowly, so goddamn careful not to make a sound on the creaky floorboards, I shifted toward the window. Thankfully it was so narrow and high up the wall that I could place myself to the left and peer out without anyone seeing me.
Audrey had been right. There were two heavily armed men just outside, making quiet hand signals to each other as they indicated that one was to head around the house.
I didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t frigging know what to do.
I knew the rules of combat – I knew that you never had time to think before you acted. I knew that the secret to overcoming these men would be to act before they had the opportunity to organize.
And yet, in the back of my head, I couldn’t turn off my actuary's brain. It was screaming at me that the odds of getting out of this situation were astronomically small.
… But I could surrender, couldn’t I?
It might give Audrey a chance. She wasn’t a known entity to Jeremiah, and if I dropped down to one knee and pleaded with his mercenaries to let her go….
Audrey didn’t let me finish that thought.
Nope. She suddenly stood up, pointed at me, pointed at my gun, pointed at the window, and mouthed, “you get ready. I’ll draw them out.”
My eyes blasted wide as I realized what she was going to do, and though I jolted over to grab her and pull her back, I didn’t have the time.
She walked toward the door, her footfall light. Before she reached it, she pointed at the chair and told me to hide.
I opened my mouth wide and hissed at her to come back, but she didn’t.
Showing the kind of courage only a special forces operative could in the face of certain death, Audrey Diamond, apparently simple history student from London, walked through the door with her hands in her pockets. Shit!
What was I doing? No, seriously, what was I doing?
Why was I striding out into the corridor to face certain death?
Why wasn’t I hiding behind that chesterfield as James had told me to?
Because it would get me killed, right?
Though I was pretty much shaking with fear, that part of my brain still worked, and it told me that hiding would not get us out of here.
My father had always told me that if I want to win in life, I had to do things my opponents weren’t expecting.
You had to be bold, you had to be fast, and in many ways, you also had to be arrogant.
While that kind of attitude often worked in business transactions, I would have to see if it extended to altercations with dangerous mercenaries.
Regardless, I couldn’t stand still. I couldn’t stand still behind that chesterfield and wait for James to get shot.
I knew I had far more chance of surviving than he did. Just as I knew, academically, that he had a much better chance of beating the bad guys than I did. Though I’d done an astonishingly good job at the cottage, most of that had been luck.
No, if we wanted to win, we needed to play each piece in this chess game to its fullest potential. I would be the bait and James would spring the trap.
I strode into the hallway, arms swinging by my sides, stance as casual as it could be.
I was more than thankful for the fact my hair was down and my bangs were hiding the sweat slicking my brow.
I stopped short of whistling a tune as I pushed into the kitchen. Though my body wanted to clench with fear and send me to my knees in a shaking mess, I took another step forward.
The door swung open, and there they were – two mercenaries.
They had their guns raised – they would have heard me approaching – but thankfully they didn’t shoot.
And little old me? I gasped. Exactly the kind of throat-hacking, belly-shuddering gasp you expect a normal person to give on seeing fully armored men in their kitchen.
“What… what’s going on here? Who the hell are you people? Are you the police?” I said in an entreating voice.
“What the fuck? Who’s she?” one of the mercenaries said under his breath, his voice muffled by the strip of fabric covering his mouth. His identity was completely hidden by a heavy, thick metal blast hat and glasses. The only thing I could see was his nose, and it was thick and ridged as if he’d spent most of his lifetime breaking it.
The mercenary closest to me didn’t hesitate, brought his gun up, and pointed it right at me.
I jerked my hands up just as I imagined your average damsel would do. “What is this? Who are you people? Why are you in my house?” My voice shot up so high it could have been a kazoo.
“Your house?” the mercenary at the lead suddenly asked. He had a nondescript accent. Honestly, that was the only way to describe it. A little North Atlantic, a little African, a little European. He gave me the impression he’d spent most of his life going from country to country with no national loyalty, just a gun and an itchy trigger finger.
“Yes, my house. The agreement hasn’t been finalized yet, but it’s close. Now, who the hell are you?”
The mercenary at the lead shot the man behind him a long look. “Get on your knees, ma’am, hands behind your head.”
“Excuse me? Are you the police?” I kept insisting as if the police would take so long to let you know who they were. Maybe like they were like that guy out of Austin Powers, and they would only answer if you asked them three times.
“Did you break my window?” I demanded as I pointed toward it, deliberately pulling my hand down and making the movement jerked. No, I was not trying to get shot. I was just trying to razz these guys, to keep them on their toes. It was clear from their stances that they didn’t think I was a threat. If I could keep them distracted, I could buy James a chance.
“You did, you broke my window. You know how expensive this house was?” My voice started to tick higher and higher with indignation. “I’m going to have to write the police a letter,” I said.
“I said get on your knees, ma’am. Place your hands behind your head,” the lead mercenary said, teeth clenched.
“You can’t go around breaking people’s windows,” I kept up the act, voice getting higher. “You could just come in the front door.”
“Ma’am. For the last freaking time, get on the floor, hands behind your head.”
I now brought my hands down completely and locked one against my hip like an indignant starlet. “Don’t think your job is secure, Mister,” I said, channeling Mrs. Bucket as my voice shot up high and became so damn British the rest of Europe would have cringed, “I will write a letter. This is unacceptable,” I said pointedly.
The two of them – even though I couldn’t see their eyes – looked completely exasperated by now. It was clear they didn’t know what to do with me.
Which was perfect.
I took another step forward, swinging my hands easily at my sides as I shifted toward the table and placed my hands on it with stiff determination. “You can’t just stroll around people’s houses doing whatever you want,” I snarled. “This is Britain.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” the lead mercenary said, obviously having had enough.
He let his gun drop on the strap around his shoulder, and he reached for me.
And that would be when I turned the table over.
It was heavy, but it was a pretty easy move. My body was so razzed with adrenaline, I could’ve hauled a car off somebody.
The table was long and wide, and the men weren’t expecting it. As I flipped it, leaned my shoulder into it, let it tumble over and slam into the both of them, I leaped onto the back of the table.
No, I wasn’t a ninja, but I used my momentum to pin the two men underneath the table.
They hadn’t been expecting it, and the table was more than large enough and heavy enough to knock them flat off their feet.
Though I managed to pin the men underneath the table for now under my not-so-insignificant weight, they were big boys, and this wouldn’t last forever.
But that would be when James burst through the door to come to my aid.
He jumped into the room, gun at the ready. Just as the two men were trying to squirm their way out from underneath the table, James growled at them in a low tone that couldn’t carry but nonetheless punched through the kitchen. “Hands up, assholes.”
Though I was kind of sprawled on top of the table, I didn’t need James to offer me a hand – do that, and it would just distract him. I pushed up, grunting hard as I got to my feet.
The two men managed to put their hands up, even though the table still half-pinned them to the ground.
I had time to look at James, had time to see the sweat beading across his brow, had time to see that the gash in his head had opened again as blood trickled from underneath his bandage.
And then? I saw it in my peripheral vision. One wall of the kitchen had high windows, and I swear I saw a shadow flicker along from outside.
I didn’t have a weapon. Just my body and my instinct for action.
So I swung down and picked up the first thing I could see. Which just happened to be a dented paint can.
It was mostly empty, but there was still paint sloshing around inside.
Thinking faster than I ever had, I wrenched the lid off the paint can and kicked the kitchen door open just as somebody wrenched it to from outside. My movement was strong enough that the door slammed into somebody, and it made them stagger backward. I chucked the content of the paint can right at their face.
It was a mercenary – of course it was a mercenary. I really doubted it was Bethany who’d flitted around the back door to proposition James again during a violent home invasion.
The guy staggered back, and despite the adrenaline and fear pulsing through my hands and making them shakier than a seismograph in an earthquake, my throw was well-timed and well-placed. His visor was covered in paint, and he spluttered as he fell backward.
I responded by ramming the paint can into his arm, hitting him with all the force I had.
“Shit, Audrey, get back inside,” James spat.
“There’s still at least one more, if not two,” I roared, realizing that the guy I’d just hit with the paint can was one of the men I’d seen outside the library window.
I’d also come to a conclusion that there were probably five of them. And even if James the hardheaded actuary wouldn’t accept my reasoning, it made sense. There’d been four mercenaries at the cottage, and they’d lost. So they’d be upping the ante. Just go with it.
Sure enough, I saw a mercenary skulking at the side of the house. This time he didn’t hesitate. He brought his gun up. I brought the paint can up.
It was a jerked, instinctual move, and it was the only goddamn thing that saved my life. The paint can was thankfully old and thankfully thick – not the thin aluminum crap you got these days.
As the guy fired off a single round of his assault rifle, it pinged into the paint can and ricocheted off.
I was thrust backward from the momentum of the bullet, but I caught the other side of the open door and pulled it around with me, using it as cover before the guy could fire again.
“Audrey!” I heard James scream from the kitchen.
Think fast, girl.
That would be when I saw the ladder.
There it was, handily on the ground right beneath me.
No, I didn’t honestly think I had time to put the ladder up against the wall, climb up it, then kick it down against the mercenary, defeating him exactly the same way I’d defeated the guy at Grimsby’s cottage.
I let my paint bucket drop, I scooped down, and I grabbed the ladder up.
It was just as the mercenary rounded the corner and brought his gun up.
I didn’t wait.
I shunted forward, using all of my strength to push the ladder into the guy’s knees.
It was just in time. He fired, but as the ladder impacted his knees and sent him hurtling backward, his bullet zipped off course.
“Audrey,” James screamed once more. That’s when I swore I heard something further into the house. A thump.
Another player in the game, ha?
“Behind you, James? Behind you!” I managed just as I grabbed hold of my paint can once more and threw the last dregs at the mercenary’s face. It was enough to cover his visor and drip behind onto his eyes. Enough to sting them and to send him into a frantic spin as he tried to wipe the paint off.
I didn’t waste time. I yanked the gun from around his shoulder, slamming my knee into his elbow as he tried to shove me off. But he was far too disconcerted by the paint stinging his eyes to be effective.
I grabbed the gun and ran. Ran as fast as I could around the side of the house.
I just hoped like hell James would be able to hold the other mercenaries off.
Shit. Shit, Audrey had just been shot at.
But that was the least of my concerns.
Though I was still holding the two mercenaries on the kitchen floor hostage, that would be when I heard a thump behind me.
I didn’t react quickly enough.
Just before I could spin and start firing, I felt something slam into my shoulder with enough force to knock me sideways.
Though I tried to right myself, a second later, a massive arm closed around my throat and felt like it would crush my windpipe with the ease of someone breaking a blade of grass.
Instantly the two mercenaries on the kitchen floor jerked up, one of them relieving me of my gun as the other punched me in the gut.
My world started to spiral around me as pain snaked through my back and hard into my chest.
I wheezed through a cough, but the guy with his massive arm pressed against my throat just shoved it harder until my breath was cut off with a spluttering choke.
“No more games,” the guy spat right in my ear. “Call off your other agent. Call her off,” the guy demanded. It was then I realized he was the Zimbabwean.
Back to haunt me, ha?
If I ever got out of this, I was going to call Sandy and give him one hell of a bollocking. He should’ve cleared out my father’s cottage soon after I called him.
The Zimbabwean gave a wheezing laugh. “Now, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do – and you’re going to do it. Otherwise I’m going to put a bullet between your eyes, got it?”
He slackened his arm around my throat just enough for me to wheeze, “got it.”
“Call off your other agent, give us the postcards, and submit.”
I wasn’t in a position to ask him to clarify what submit meant. Instead, I managed a nod.
He slackened his arm around my throat further.
I took a breath. “Audrey,” I screamed at the top of my lungs, “get the hell out of here,” I managed.
That would be when the closest mercenary rounded on me and punched me so hard in the jaw, I saw stars explode behind my eyes.
“Wrong choice,” the Zimbabwean said as he slammed his arm into my throat like he wanted to push my Adam’s apple through to the back of my neck.
I choked, a pressure building in my head as if I’d swallowed a balloon.
The guy had the strength to pull me off my feet, and there wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do to fight against him.
By now the two mercenaries Audrey had covered in paint were back on their feet. Though they were blinking in obvious pain as they tried but failed to wipe all the paint from their eyes, they were standing. And they had guns back in their hands.
This situation had gone to hell.
This was it.
This was where the great James Chase would find his end.
I’d finally bitten off one more risk than I could chew.
I just hoped – hoped with all my heart – that Audrey would have the sense to get out of here.
Jesus Christ. Could things get any worse?
James hadn’t acted quickly enough, and that massive mercenary from the cottage had grabbed him from behind. I recognized the guy even though I couldn’t see his face. It was his sheer size. I doubted there could be too many people in existence like him.
Which left me in the most precarious situation I’d ever been in. I’d thought the cottage had been fraught, but this – well, this was completely different.
This was impossible. Even as I thought that, I shook my head, clutching hold of the assault rifle as I pressed my back against the side of the house and breathed.
Nothing is impossible. Be bold, I heard my father’s voice.
Then I heard James’ voice as clear as hell as he suddenly shouted at me to get out of here. There was such a note of desperation shaking through his tone, I wanted to clasp a hand over my mouth and choke back the tears.
Yes, I’d only just met this guy, but our interactions to-date hadn’t exactly been without frisson. We’d been thrust into some pretty crazy situations, and like it or not, I was starting to feel a connection to him. The kind of connection, at least, that made me cringe at the possibility he could be killed.
“Think,” I chided myself under my breath. “There has to be a way to draw them out.”
Unlike the situation at the cottage, I didn’t have a handy taser on me. Nor would the mercenaries be so stupid as to let me use one.
I no longer had the element of surprise. All I had was an assault rifle. And though I knew I would have to use it if the situation dictated, I really, really didn’t want to turn into a murderer today.
There was another option, wasn’t there?
These men were after the postcards, weren’t they? Would they… would they leave if we surrendered them?
No, you complete freaking idiot – they’d just kill us, the sensible part of my mind told me.
It also took the opportunity to point out that I was not a stupid girl. The same thing James had been saying for the past day and a half.
I could think on my feet. And by George, I would not turn into one of those stupid damsels who handed the bad guys everything they needed on the off chance they would shrug, forgive our indiscretions, and part with a friendly wave.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t buy us some time.
And an opportunity.
I realized that James’ phone was still in my pocket. I’d shoved it there after I’d picked it up from the table in the library.
I drew it out with a shaking hand, careful to always keep my attention locked on both sides of the house so none of the mercenaries could sneak up and surprise me with a bullet to the brain.
I frowned at the phone, knowing it would be locked, and though I liked to think I knew a lot about James, I didn’t know enough to figure out what the code to his phone would be. I really doubted it would be something easy like 1234, or something ridiculously foolish, like the date of his dad’s death – not that I even knew that.
That would be when providence smiled on me.
Because the phone rang. I didn’t let it ring for long. Do that, and the mercenaries would come running for me. It was in my hand, so I swiped it right to accept the call. As I did, I saw Sandy’s name pop-up.
James had already mentioned Sandy’s name several times, and I realized he could be our opportunity to get out of here.
“Tell me you’re alright, James,” Sandy began, voice quick.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but listen to me. James Chase is currently in the kitchen of his father’s house surrounded by a band of five heavily armed mercenaries. He’s in an extremely precarious position. You need to send a team stat,” I said, drawing on all the vernacular I’d learned from video games and action movies.
There was a tight pause. “Who the hell is this?”
“Look, Sandy – that’s your name, isn’t it? Just send a goddamn team. I can tell you where all of the mercenaries are. They’re in the kitchen at the moment. But James doesn’t have long. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch, and he’ll piss them off sooner rather than later.”
Though there was another prolonged pause, Sandy snorted. “You know him well, then? Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Audrey Diamond,” I began, ready to push into a quick summary of what the heck I was doing in Huddleston if that was what it would take for this Sandy to finally deploy the cavalry.
“He told me about you. Audrey,” Sandy’s voice dropped low and had a purely professional tone now, “you need to get out of there. Got that? You need to leave this to the professionals—”
“If you’re the goddamn professionals, then just get off the phone and send the cavalry pronto. Got it? He doesn’t have much time.” With that, I pressed my back into the side of the house and brought the gun up just as I heard footsteps.
“Audrey?” I heard Sandy say, voice so loud it was reverberating out of the speaker.
I had just enough time to cram the phone against my ear once more, “keep your goddamn voice down; they’re coming.” With that, rather than turning the phone off, I crammed it down my front, secured both hands on the gun, and set my mind to one thing – buying James more time.
Just as I heard one set of footsteps, I picked up a second person approaching from the other side. I doubled back, brought the gun up, and fired at the window beside me. Fortunately, unlike the rest of the house, this window was quite wide and low to the ground. As my bullet slammed into it, the glass shattered, spilling out in a halo.
Though this was only the second time I’d fired a gun, it was worse. The recoil on this assault rifle was utterly insane. Rather than allow it to knock me on my ass as I caught my breath, I shunted forward, using the assault rifle to press against the jagged edges of the glass remaining in the windowsill as I vaulted into the room.
It was just in time – I heard bullets whizzing past the house.
With a quick look around me, I realized this had to be Grimsby’s bedroom. There was a large four-poster bed, several wardrobes, a chest of drawers, and a small bookcase.
I heard someone swearing further into the house.
Again I was being forced to think on my feet.
And what did my feet want to do? Get the hell out of here.
I didn’t have that option.
Sandy may have told me to run away – and James may have screamed it too – but I couldn’t. James was wrong; I couldn’t tap-out, not yet. Because if I did, he’d die. And that smooth, beautiful prick was a lot of things, but he did not deserve to die.
So I would buy him some more time.
Rather than allow the two mercenaries the opportunity to climb through the now smashed bedroom window, I lifted the gun and fired off a spurt, hopefully pointing out to them that if they dared raise their heads above the window, they would get shot off.
Sure enough, I heard the men flattening themselves against the side of the house and swearing.
I also heard more swearing from the kitchen.
I was not in a desirable, nor defendable position. Even though I had never been formally trained in the art of action, I could easily appreciate that while five of the mercenaries had handily been cordoned off in the kitchen earlier, now they were spread out, and worse, they were moving in on me from both sides. In between the swearing – I could hear footfall coming closer down the hallway.
I was in a sandwich of bad guys, and I was not well pleased.
Though I could easily just hang around and engage in a gunfight, laying down covering fire toward the door and window until the cavalry came, I doubted they’d get here that quickly.
Plus, at some point, I knew that massive mercenary would start to use James as a hostage, and then what would I do?
“Come on, girl, think,” I berated myself.
Then I saw it. The blinking smoke alarm just above the bed. Obviously old Grimsby had been a conscious house owner and had popped a smoke detector in every room.
What was better?
There was a box of matches and a candle on the bedside table.
Old-school. But perfect.
I shifted forward on my hands and knees, grabbed the candles, shoved them in my pocket, then inched toward the large bookcase that was by the window.
That would be when I saw the manhole into the attic. It was roughly in the middle of the room, but if I managed to shift the bed, I’d be able to reach it.
I just needed to make some noise.
That was exactly what I did.
I grabbed the wastepaper basket that was thankfully made of metal and equally as thankfully had some tissues inside. I lit a match and dropped it into the basket. All the while, I occasionally fired off shots through the window just to let the bastards outside know I hadn’t given up.
It didn’t take long for the tissues to light, and it didn’t take long for the smoke detector to start blaring.
And boy was it a loud one. Grimsby honestly hadn’t scrimped when it came to protecting his house from fire.
Though all I wanted to do was cram my fingers in my ears, I left the smoldering tissues in the bin beneath the smoke detector.
Then I inched my way toward the large bookcase next to the window.
Keeping a wary eye on the door that led into the hallway, I reached the bookcase and gave it an almighty shove. Despite the fact it was frigging heavy, it wasn’t that hard to move – not considering I was so razzed it felt like every single one of my muscles had been injected with their individual supply of adrenaline.
With a heave that was thankfully masked by the blaring sound of the alarm, I shifted the bookcase in front of the window.
I let the gun fall slack on its strap around my shoulder as I grabbed the four-poster bed. I pushed with all my might as I pressed it in front of the door. The bed head was thankfully large and thick old wood. It would give an added layer of protection should the mercenaries in the hallway decide to shoot their way in.
The smoke alarm was still blaring.
Though all I wanted to do was run from the room before my eardrums split, I jumped up on the bottom of the bed. I experimentally grabbed one of the posters and shook it around a bit, wondering if it was sturdy enough to hold my weight.
Then again, what frigging choice did I have?
Fortunately the four-poster bed was large enough and wide enough that when I’d pressed it against the door, one of the posts had lined up roughly underneath the manhole into the attic.
Jesus Christ, I couldn’t even believe I was considering this, but what other option did I have?
I deliberately left the phone on so Sandy could track what I was doing, figure out this was frigging serious, and send the cavalry here sharpish.
“Come on, girl,” I whispered to myself under the blaring sound of the alarm.
Then I began to climb the four-poster. Fortunately, it was heavily carved, and it wasn’t like trying to clamber up a slim, sleek piece of polished wood.
I kicked off my shoes, gripping with my feet as I clambered up and reached the top.
Fortunately, Grimsby had purchased his furniture from somebody who knew how to build. The carpentry was excellent, and though the bed wobbled, it was sturdy enough to hold my weight.
My mind wasn’t just spinning, it was frigging doing somersaults around my head. I swore my brain would actually start leaking out of my ears.
And that wasn’t just the damn breakneck speed of the situation. It was the frigging alarm which continued to blare right by my ear.
I would probably go half deaf after this.
Clenching my teeth as hard as I could, I reached a hand toward the manhole into the attic.
Fortunately I had enough height that I could reach it. With a shove and a heave, I managed to push open the manhole cover.
Then my heart somersaulted into my mouth, and I took the strongest breath I could manage.
I reached up and almost slipped, but just at the last moment managed to grab the lip of the opening. I gave it a good test, hoping this old house had been built like this old bed. Sure enough, when chunks of the ceiling didn’t come off in my hands, I grabbed the edge with both hands and tried to pull myself up through the opening. It was frigging hard. Not only was the manhole pretty small, but hello, I was balancing on top of a four-poster bed.
But I did it. I did it with the gun on its strap dangling around my middle. I did it with a pounding heart, with shaking breath, and with a sweat-slicked brow.
But by Jove, I did it.
A second later, I was up in the attic. It was musty – dear God was it musty. Because this wasn’t actually an attic; it was just a roof space.
There were chunks of insulation everywhere, and the damn place smelled of rat piss.
But that did not stop me.
I had a rough idea of the layout of the house. Though this was the first time I’d been in the cottage, and I hadn’t been to every room, I could roughly navigate my way to the kitchen.
I could hear two of the mercenaries shouting to each other as they tried to get into Grimsby’s bedroom from the hallway as the other two outside tried to push in through the broken window.
That left one, right?
The bastard in the kitchen with James.
Careful to only ever put my weight on the strong bearers and cross members of the roof space, I maneuvered through the insulation and made my way to the kitchen. I knew it was the kitchen, because there were small holes in the lath and plaster ceiling. As I grabbed a chunk of insulation and pulled it to the side, I peered down, and there – I saw him.
James was on a chair, another massive gash on his brow, his arms loose by his sides as blood dribbled down from a cut on his lip.
My stomach kicked hard. I didn’t know this man – I kept trying to point that out – but that didn’t matter. Because the way my body reacted was as if a nearest and dearest was down on that chair and not frigging Mr. Perfect.
The massive mercenary was standing in front of James, one hand locked on the back of the chair as he sneered into James’ face.
Though the blaring sound of the smoke alarm was still pounding through the house, I strained my ears and managed to pick up the guy snarling at James.
“Your father was a coward, Chase. Worse than you. But you will end up the same. You should never have followed in his footsteps. Because now you will die in them.”
With that, he brought up his fist once more and slammed it into James’ gut. I slammed a hand over my mouth, stifling a gasp.
Though it hadn’t connected with my gut, you couldn’t tell my body that. My stomach twisted with such awful tension, I could’ve chucked up my guts.
I remained there, watching. Waiting.
I had a gun – it was still on the strap around my shoulder. And I could use it. But I didn’t want to. For several reasons. Primarily, I couldn’t stomach the thought of killing someone. The other was I’d already proven that I wasn’t a great shot. And not only would I have to fire through the ceiling, but I'd also have to hope that I didn’t do enough damage to bring the whole thing down around everyone’s ears.
But just as I clasped the gun, just as I realized I’d have to do it, I heard something from my cleavage.
The phone. It was Sandy. He was trying to get my attention.
I crammed a hand over the phone, bringing it out, masking the sound of his voice as I pressed a hand with the phone to my ear. “Quiet,” I hissed in a voice that couldn’t carry and would thankfully be obscured by the still blaring alarm. “What?” I demanded.
“Cavalry is on its way. Two minutes.”
“He doesn’t have that long,” I said.
“Then buy him some time,” Sandy snapped.
Buy him some time?
I could do that.
I could do that.
All we needed was a distraction that would last two minutes – no, sorry, 1 minute and 55 seconds.
“Okay, what the hell,” I said.
My father had once told me that I was a very distracting person. Heck, everyone who knew me quickly realized that I was a very distracting person. I was loud, I was big, I was in your face, and I never let up.
And even though I was technically quite a rational soul, sometimes – okay, quite often – I just went with my gut instinct and did the first thing that popped into my head. It didn’t always pay off, but at least it kept my life interesting, right?
What? You think right now would not be one of those times. Right now, with James Chase’s life in my very hands, I should go with the first thing that popped into my head. I should be just like him, and I should carefully think through the risks before picking the best option to go forward.
But I wasn’t James Chase, and that? That would be the reason the bastard would live.
So this was it, ha? I could see the look in the Zimbabwean’s eyes. He’d snapped. Maybe Jeremiah still wanted me alive, or maybe Jeremiah had given the order to kill. Point was, the Zimbabwean was no longer going to hold back. He was gonna beat me to death, punch-by-punch.
There wasn’t a frigging thing I could do about it. He’d already tied me to the chair, not that I needed much encouragement to sit in it considering I couldn’t hold myself up.
And as for his other companions? They weren’t in sight. They weren’t here to hold him back when he went too far. They were out dealing with Audrey.
Audrey, my tired, pain-filled mind had time to think. I had no idea what she was doing. All I knew was that the smoke alarm had started blaring a good few minutes ago. Maybe it had been her; maybe it hadn’t.
Maybe it didn’t matter?
This was it.
I let out a choked breath and waited as the guy opened his palm wide, getting ready to slam it into the base of my nose. It would be a deadly blow. It would break my nose and send chunks of it into my brain. Or maybe it would just disable me for life. Either option wasn’t exactly pleasant.
I didn’t beg for my life. I wouldn’t do that.
Then again, I didn’t have to.
Right at the last moment, right when the guy took a lurched step toward me, the ceiling broke. In a hail of cracking plaster and insulation, a body dropped from it right on top of the guy.
He was massive. Don’t get me wrong, he was clearly one of the biggest goons I had ever met. But he was still just a man, and as someone came sailing down from the ceiling in a hail of plaster and wood, he didn’t have a chance.
The person knocked into him, sending him flat on his face as they slammed hard into his back.
And that would be when I saw her.
Audrey damn Diamond.
She jumped from the frigging ceiling on top of the Zimbabwean. And though she was covered in plaster dust and clearly frigging surprised at what had just happened, that didn’t stop her from jerking back, bringing her gun up, and pressing it hard into the back of the guy’s neck.
Though he’d been readying to buck back, he froze.
“Wise choice,” she said in a controlled, cold voice that would get any man to think twice. “Unless you want to become a paraplegic, I suggest you stay exactly where you are.”
The smoke alarm was still blaring, and it had such a high pitch that it could have hidden a full orchestra from the mercenaries at the back of the house.
So they didn’t come sprinting into the room when the whole ceiling fell in.
No, the smoke alarm brought Audrey enough time as she reached around, shoved a hand into the Zimbabwean’s utility belt, and pulled out some cable ties.
She never let the muzzle of her gun shift from the back of the guy’s neck.
Her finger permanently hovered over the trigger as she snapped at him to bring his hands up and place them over his head. Then, with one frigging hand, she cable tied him.
… Who the hell was this woman?
It wasn’t until he was secured that she shuffled off his back, stood, and looked at me.
And me? I had time to offer her possibly one of the most genuine looks I had ever given. A look that was all surprise, shock, wonder, and heart-shuddering thanks.
And that would be when her pocket spoke.
Even from here, I could recognize Sandy’s rough tones.
Keeping the assault rifle trained on the Zimbabwean, she plucked the phone out of her pocket. “This better be you telling me the cavalry is here,” she snapped, possibly using exactly the same indignant tone I always used on Sandy.
That would be when I heard the sound of a body heavily striking the kitchen door. It shook through the wood and was just audible over the blaring sound of the smoke alarm.
“Shit, it’s…” Audrey began.
“Over,” I said.
Because it was over.
It didn’t take long to mop up Jeremiah’s men. It wasn’t my job, after all. Not only that, Sandy had shown his true value by clearing things over with the authorities.
After a quick trip to the local hospital to ensure I hadn’t ruptured anything important, I was back.
The postcards were arranged neatly on my kitchen table.
The compass was out, too.
It hadn’t taken me long to figure out where the next location would be.
As soon as my injuries healed, I’d be off to track down the next part of this clue.
First there was someone very important I had to see.
I heard the doorbell sound, and I couldn’t quite stop myself from smiling as I shoved a hand into my pocket, walked through the hall, and answered it.
There she was, Audrey Diamond, possibly the most serious badass historian in the history of the world.
She was back in one of those 50s dresses, this one with tiny little love hearts emblazoned over her bust.
Though I wouldn’t tell her this, it suited her.
Not many people could pull off sweetheart pinup like she could.
She had one of those slightly crazy smiles that she often got. I doubted it was directed at me, though. And for the weirdest, strangest, fleeting of seconds, that sent a pang of disappointment kicking hard through my gut.
But it didn’t last, because she peered past me and into my house. “Jesus Christ, they must be good. This place is as clean as a whistle. How about the window into your dad’s bedroom?” she inquired efficiently, obviously showing her handyman roots.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chuckle at her. She immediately sucked in her bottom lip. “What? What’re you laughing at?”
“If the window wasn’t fixed, why do I get the feeling that you would run around to the hardware store, buy some glass, and have it fixed within 20 minutes?”
She pouted again. “James Chase, sometimes I’m not sure what to do with you.”
I couldn’t help but let out an echoing laugh now. “Audrey Diamond, I have never known what to do with you. But thanks for coming around.”
She gave me a peculiar kind of look, shrugged, then nodded forward.
We reached the kitchen, and immediately she tipped her head back to look at the ceiling.
And no, I hadn’t forgotten when she’d come barreling through it to save me at the last moment. I would never forget that.
If I didn’t have to keep my “hobby” secret to most of my friends, that would become my favorite story for the rest of my life.
Audrey had admitted that she tended to think quickly on her feet, but she didn’t do herself justice.
She had a rare streak of crazy that few people could match.
And it was only because of that rare streak that I was now alive.
As soon as we walked into the kitchen, I watched out of the corner of my eye as she stiffened and stared at the postcards.
This was the first time I’d seen her since the incident. And, unfortunately, it would be the last time I would see her full stop.
For this would be where we would part ways. Though Audrey Diamond had been a distracting – and distractingly competent – sidekick, this was over for us.
I smiled. But though the smile spread my lips, it could spread no further. Because why… why was a little part of me so damn disappointed that this would be the last time we would ever meet?
I knew why James had invited me here, and it wasn’t to offer me a job as his off-sider.
No, it was to say goodbye and to reiterate that this would be it.
No more adventures for us. Back to normalcy for me and back to… whatever the heck James Chase got up to on a day-to-day basis for him.
Though I could have pulled him into another argument to distract him, I didn’t. I jumped right into it. “So we’re never going to meet again, right?” I asked as I arched an eyebrow and held a hand out to him.
He looked at it, and it wasn’t a tentative move. There was a strength about his gaze, and boy-oh-boy was there a strength about his grip as he reached forward, wrapped his strong, hot fingers around mine, and shook my hand.
Excuse me if my stomach chose that exact moment to explode in tingles. But rather than go with the giddy laugh that wanted to climb my throat, I arched an eyebrow.
“This is where we part, Audrey. Thank you for your help. I would say have a good life, but I think you have the intelligence and skills to figure that out on your own,” he said. Genuinely. That’s right, Mr. Prick was offering me an actual compliment.
So I returned it. Smiling in a way that I was starting to notice drew all of his attention to my ruby red lips, I nodded. “You have a good life too, Mr.…” I deliberately let a pause string out, “James Chase.”
He let my hand go, stepped back, shoved his hands into his pockets, and nodded once more. “I don’t know if it’ll be good, but it will be something.” Again his eyes ticked toward the postcards.
Though I shouldn’t – though I was telling myself to get over them and to get out of here while I had the chance – I still turned over my shoulder and glanced toward the table.
There they were.
Postcards that purportedly led to some of the greatest treasure the Nazis ever stole.
… But I was over it. I’d buried my curiosity on that. Right?
James cleared his throat pointedly, and I snapped my head back around, locking my hands together in front of my waist. “Good luck,” I managed. “And happy hunting.”
On that, the slowest smile spread his lips. My stomach was already chock full of tingles, but now a spike of heat rushed down my back, too.
“I’d say the same to you, Audrey. But you’re not in the business. A pity.” With that apparently honest statement, James bowed low.
Me? I lingered.
Was this the right choice? It was the sane choice, sure. It was a choice where I would never be shot at by hired mercenaries again and I’d never get into another car chase. … But was it really what I wanted to do?
Yes, I told myself firmly. And with one last wave, I turned and walked out the door.
I won’t deny that my heart sank, that a little of the lust for adventure I’d developed over the past several intense days withered and died.
And yet, it couldn’t die completely. Because though we’d just agreed never to meet each other again, I had a feeling that was an agreement we couldn’t keep.
Who knows, maybe I would run into James Chase sooner rather than later.
After all, he was better at his job when I was around.
I smiled and walked away, plucking my sunglasses from my bag and cramming them on my nose.
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