Congratulations, you’ve graduated.
Congratulations, you’ve freaking graduated.
Those words repeated in my head as I clutched hold of the champagne flute harder, my fingers really pushing in against the expensive crystal.
I was in a dress. An extremely expensive dress. An extremely nice dress. I also had a real diamond hanging off my throat.
Oh, and I was at one of the fanciest soirées I had ever been to, let alone imagined.
As I navigated my way through the guests, I swore so much money was on display it was a surprise no one was dressed in credit cards.
I kept telling myself to chill out, but you know what the hardest thing to do right now was? Chill the hell out.
I kept playing the day’s dangers over and over in my mind until I thought my teeth would grind to enamel dust.
“Come on, Audrey, you can do this. You have to do this. Fail, and the world ends. Or at least your tiny section of it does,” I muttered, ensuring my whispers couldn’t carry.
There was a huge crystal chandelier above the main hall, and it was so damn big, I guessed that it weighed as much as a car.
That huge light fitting was not the only crazy opulence on display. The floor was marble. Real sheets of damn thick marble. There were even pillars. This place looked like it was out of the twisted imagination of a Greek God who’d seen too many fancy parties from the 1920s.
“Just find him. Find the bastard and end this,” I kept muttering under my breath, my teeth now so clenched, I’d probably need a fortune in dental work done just to ensure I could chew again.
I angled this way and that around the party until I finally saw the bastard. He was standing on top of the stairs, surveying his guests like shepherd looking at his flock. No, wait, that was entirely the wrong image. Count Driscoll was not a shepherd. Count Driscoll was a hawk. Some bird of prey who was looking for his latest victim.
I swallowed as I saw him. Then I pushed toward the stairs.
He saw me, and he pushed down.
Even from here, I could see one of those smiles pushing across his lips. And what did I mean by one of those smiles? Oh, you know. The smile of somebody who was completely in control. Somebody who’d just realized they’d won everything.
And no, Count Driscoll’s eyes weren’t glittering like that because he thought I was a bodacious catch he was reeling in. Hell no. He wasn’t after my figure, my dress, or even my diamond – though he did want to get his hand on that.
He was after the small roll of parchment I had stuffed down my bra. Not, of course, that the bastard knew it was down my top.
He thought it was back in my hotel room, or perhaps cleverly stashed in my higher car. Or maybe he even thought that I’d disposed of the real thing and taken an image on my phone.
I didn’t bother telling myself I could do this one more time.
I angled my head up as I reached the base of the stairs, and I smiled. With all my worth. I really let my ruby-red lips spread.
Count Driscoll reached me.
I’ll give him one thing, he was a handsome bastard. And he was the kind of handsome bastard whose arrogance actually added to his charm and not detracted from it. You see, once upon a time, I’d thought James had that ability. Then….
I couldn’t even finish the thought. I couldn’t think of James right now. It would derail the plan.
My point was, Count Driscoll gave you the impression that he was in control and that you wanted him to be in control. He was like a mini dictator in the making – someone who could promise you everything you wanted, fail to deliver a single thing, and yet still appear worthwhile.
He placed a hand on the balustrade, his fingers slipping over the polished marble as he pushed toward me and smiled.
His lips didn’t so much curl as clink up. “You made it. How pleasant.” He let his eyes tick down me, focusing for way too long on my bust.
Fair enough, I’d put a heck of a lot of effort into ensuring my bust would draw everyone’s attention. No, it wasn’t so people could see the small parchment rolled up in my bra. It would distract from my freaked-out expression and sweaty hands.
My bust was pretty much my only weapon right now. I didn’t have a gun, I didn’t have backup, and I didn’t have James.
At that thought, I took a tight breath. “I wouldn’t miss a party like this for the world. You certainly put on an impressive shindig,” I managed.
… Really? Shindig? The guy was Count, for God’s sake and he owned a frigging island, and I’d referred to his party as if it were a hoedown.
If he’d noticed, he didn’t let on. His lips simply spread across his teeth with another clink. No, his lips didn’t actually clink like diamond hitting diamond, but I swore I heard it in my imagination.
Or hey, maybe clink was the wrong term. Maybe the sound they made was more like a gun cocking.
“I take it you have something to show me?” he asked as he glanced meaningfully down at my top.
No, he wasn’t propositioning me to flash him while surrounded by some of the richest people in Europe.
He was looking at my necklace. You know the diamond I’d mentioned earlier? Yeah, it was no ordinary diamond. It was a red diamond. The rarest form a diamond in the world. From the Argyle mines in the Kimberly region of Australia, it was as rare as rare could be.
And yet, what it led to would be rarer.
“I would prefer to show you,” I let my gaze tick to the side, “in private,” I said, and no, my voice did not purr. It remained perfectly even and neutral, thank you very much. If the mission didn’t dictate it, there was no way I would be asking to see this guy in private.
He ticked his gaze away from me, apparently surveying the party as if he was checking that it would function without him. Or was he making eye contact with his numerous security staff at the edges of the room? Yeah, I’d already counted them. 20 in total – and those were only the ones I could see. There’d been 10 outside, all taking up various positions around the snow-touched lawns. There were five outside in the atrium where guests arrived to. And then there were five inside the main room.
Come on, Audrey, you can do this. You have to do this. There is literally no one else he can do this, I said to myself, even though my words were hardly motivating. They were exactly the opposite. They tended to push one toward despair. But I really didn’t have the opportunity to wallow in despair.
Everybody and everything was riding on what would happen next.
Driscoll appeared to appreciate that he could leave. He turned around, angled his head over his shoulder, and nodded at me once. Then he gave me his arm.
My stomach twisting, I walked up onto the first step and took his arm.
Driscoll led me away.
With every step up that staircase, my stomach clenched and tightened.
You can do this, I forcibly told myself once more. Because if you don’t, there’ll be no one to save James.
That thought and that thought alone solidified my will.
Driscoll led me away from the party. Or at least the party he’d invited everyone else to. The main event was just about to begin.
“You are a smooth bastard,” I said through clenched teeth as I leaned against my doorway and crossed my arms. Fortunately my body was imposing enough that I was taking up the entire doorway, making it clear that this jerk would have to get through me if he wanted to get into my house.
And who was the jerk?
Oh, you know. Or maybe you don’t. Because no, it wasn’t James.
It was his frigging brother.
Jake Grimsby tilted his head back and smiled. And goddammit, that smile did a hell of a lot to my stomach. Any girl’s stomach wouldn’t have been able to resist that smile. It was the kind of smile that was perfectly calibrated to make you melt.
Before I could, I crossed my arms even tighter. “You must have a pretty good reason for coming here.”
Jake brought his arms up wide, the fabric of his suit stretching to accommodate the move. The bastard looked great in a suit. Somehow he even looked better than James, and I’d sworn that James had been genetically modified to look perfect in Cashmere wool. “Audrey, Audrey – is that any way to treat me? After I saved your life twice?”
“I count once. You saved my life on that train,” I stated flatly.
“But I also saved your life in Cuba,” he said as he pointed at me. His eyes were doing this thing. Not just drawing me in, but making his every point with a sparkle.
Yeah, normal people’s eyes can’t sparkle. Unless they’re in a cartoon or they’re a vampire. But Jake was not normal.
I wanted to cross my arms tighter, but that would just squeeze my head from my shoulders. “Just cut to the chase, Jake – what do you want?”
“A thank you?” he tried. “And an invite in?” He looked past me, angling his head this way and that, using his greater height to see over my form and into my house.
I actually jumped up like I was a three-year-old as I tried to block his view. “What are you doing?”
“Looking at your house. It’s… small,” he concluded. “Could be larger – if you play your cards right.”
I had no idea what that comment meant, and my stomach lurched. “Excuse me?”
“Audrey Diamond,” he said as he cleared his throat, his voice doing this funny thing as he started to sound like an ordinary human being and not an idiot.
“I’m requesting your skills as an employee of the government. Your Queen and Country calls,” he added with a charming flick of a grin.
I blinked my eyes slowly and shook my head. “My Queen and bloody Country do not call. You do. And the answer is no. I’m not helping you; I’m an ordinary citizen,” I began, intending to launch into a list of reasons why I couldn’t and shouldn’t help Jake.
But that was when he shifted forward, taking a single small step toward me. He was still on the second step leading up to my doorway, but that didn’t matter – just at inch closer pushed him into my personal space.
My stomach clenched so damn tightly I thought there was a noose around my intestines. “I’m not inviting you in,” I said, voice trilling high.
“That’s a pity. You’ve invited James in, though, haven’t you? Why am I any different?”
Oh, I could take an entire year listing the reasons why this bastard was different. Instead of trying, I almost growled at him. My lips curled hard over my teeth, and it must’ve been comical, because he laughed.
“Audrey, I know what you’re doing right now.”
“Good? Then you can piss off.”
He brought both hands up in a surrender position and shrugged. “I know what you’re really doing,” he said, emphasizing the word really.
“And what’s that, Mr. Genius?”
“You’re doing what my idiot brother told you to do,” his voice dropped down low as he talked about James.
I straightened unavoidably, and my cheeks paled, giving away the effect that statement had on me.
It was enough that Jake arched an eyebrow. “He doesn’t want you to get involved in this world. It’s too late,” Jake concluded with an easy shrug.
I almost felt despair at that statement. After all, hello, if there was any girl in the world who’d learned the bad side of treasure hunting, it was me. I could give you an exhaustive list of all the dangers you would run into if you were stupid enough to try to find out exactly where X marked the spot.
… But before I could trail into despair, I felt… that thing again. And what was that thing?
“Exhilaration,” Jake practically answered my question for me. “You miss the exhilaration of the hunt. I can hand it to you. I need your help,” he concluded once more. “You have a peculiar ability to track down my dead father’s clues. There’ll be money, too,” he said as he tilted past me and looked into my small house again. “Suitable remonstration. You’ll find yourself quite comfortable after it.”
“Cut to the damn chase, Jake. Why do you need me? You must have countless agents at your fingertips. And if you don’t have countless agents,” my lips really stiffened, “you can always drag James into this. You seem to have control of him somehow.”
“Let’s not bring my brother into this.”
“Because he’d throttle you if he found out you were trying to recruit me?”
Jake switched his gaze to the side and obviously decided he didn’t want to answer that question. “Let’s just keep this between the two of us,” his voice dropped down low on the word two of us.
Before my stomach could do a mutinous thing and tingle with passion, I tilted my head up and sniffed loudly.
“Oh no – though I haven’t known you for all that long, I appreciate it’s not a good sign when you look indignant. I had hoped you wouldn’t be like this.”
“Then you’re an idiot, and you obviously don’t know me as well as you think you do. There’s no way I am going to find any more treasure. I am through with treasure hunting,” I said as I finally released my arms from my middle and made a cutting motion with my hands.
Jake looked right at me. Though often he played the idiot and it seemed as if he was about as sincere as a greeting card, slowly his lips curled, and I could tell he was using whatever analytical skills had earned him his position of employ within the government on me. “Audrey, please. I know your search history,” he said plainly.
I opened my mouth, and my lips stiffened. “… Oh,” I managed.
“Oh, indeed. You’ve been researching Maradova an awful lot lately, haven’t you? Which is quite ironic, considering that’s where we think the next clue is. Would you agree that that’s ironic, Audrey Diamond?”
I paled. Though my natural indignation wanted me to cross my arms again, there was no point. I’dbeen sprung. I turned to the side, not wanting to face him anymore.
“Can I come in?”
“You’re a bastard, Jake Grimsby,” I said as I kicked my door open, whirled, and walked into the kitchen.
Jake caught the door before it could slam against the wall, straightened his shoulders, and walked in. He looked exactly like a cat who’d just stolen all the cream.
He closed my door behind him. I had my back to him, but there was a mirror at the end of my hallway, and I used it to watch him as he stared around my house.
“Don’t touch my stuff,” I snapped.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said as he switched his gaze forward and stared at my ass instead.
We reached my kitchen. I didn’t pull a chair out for him. Nor did I offer him a packet of biscuits and a cup of tea. I yanked out one of my chairs with my foot, sat in it hard, finally crossed my arms again, and stared at him silently.
“Audrey,” he said as he fixed a hand on his tie and smoothed it down his chest while he sat, “there’s no need to be like that. Let’s just make this easy, shall we?”
“Exactly how much remuneration are we talking about?” I cut to the chase.
“So you can be bought, then?”
If he thought I’d been indignant before, he was an idiot. I straightened, channeling my grandmother as my cheeks descended with a twitch and my eyes widened. “Why—”
he leaned back and brought his arms up, his hands spreading wide. “My mistake. That was an insensitive observation. But to answer your question, if you help us find the treasure, I will arrange a package of 100,000 pounds.”
I told myself not to react, but at the mention of 100,000 pounds, I think my eyes boggled. I would’ve looked like one of those humorous cartoon characters from the fifties. You know the ones I’m talking about – where their eyes literally pushed out of their heads whenever they saw something they wanted.
I cleared my throat. It was weak and sounded pathetic.
Jake pressed another smile over his lips. “So, what do you know?”
“About you being a dick?” I couldn’t help but ask, even though I knew what his question was directed at.
Either Jake really wanted me on this, or he was being weirdly accommodating. He didn’t snap back at my rude comment.
Then again, Jake wasn’t the kind to snap at me. He was the kind to channel all of his frustrations toward his brother.
“No, not about me being a dick,” he said, a patient smile spreading his lips. “About Maradova? I would very much like to know how you figured out that that was the location of the next clue.”
I was one of those girls who liked to believe she was really good at lying. I was obviously wrong. Because at that question, I bit my lip and kind of winced.
“Audrey?” Jake prompted.
“I figured it out, okay?”
“They were taken off my brother, as was any image that had been taken of them. So how exactly did you find Maradova?”
I scratched my neck as I wouldn’t look at him. “I have a pretty good memory, okay? I remembered that one of the postcards showed an island.”
“I am to believe from your memory,” he emphasized that word, “that you tracked that island down to Maradova?”
“I have a lot of atlases.”
“A remarkable observation, Audrey. You didn’t use the atlases though, did you?”
I shook my head. “No, I drew what I remembered of the island and used reverse-image searches of the Inter7net. It was fruitless for a while, but then I kept refining my search, adding in all the details I knew until I found something. I remembered from the postcards that the island hadn’t looked tropical – it had been northern. Then finally I’d remembered some of the trees – and I tracked it down to Europe. Maradova,” I added needlessly with a shrug.
Jake smiled slowly. I wanted to say it was predatory, but it had a different age. It was almost proud. But, you see, Jake Grimsby didn’t have any reason to be proud of me.
I tilted back from the table, scratched my cheek, and looked to the side as I tried to get away from that particular glint in his eye.
He brought his hands up and actually clapped. “Well done, Audrey Diamond. Now, about that 100,000-pound deal.”
“I haven’t agreed to it yet,” I said defensively.
“And nor will you be forced to agree to it,” he said carefully, but at the same time, he sounded like a lawyer who was about to argue me into a corner.
I looked at him sharply. “I don’t get it – why are you offering me this, anyway? And where is James?”
“I don’t wish for my brother to go this mission.”
I snorted. “Why not? Because you don’t want him to go ape-shit at the fact you’re trying to contact me?”
“I wouldn’t say that ape-shit is a particularly good description of how my brother will react. But that’s not the reason. I wish to keep him out of this, because my brother has endured enough.”
That admission sent such a deep frown marking my lips, I thought it would be on my face forever. “Bullshit,” I tried.
This caused Jake to look at me sharply. It was so damn direct, it was a surprise his eyes didn’t bore through the front of my head. “You can choose to believe what you wish to believe, Miss Diamond. But the fact is,” he emphasized the word is, “that I believe my brother has gone through enough. Ever since the incident on the train, I believe he needs a holiday.”
“So I have to step up, ha?”
“I did not say that you have to step up.” He tilted his head to the side, a specific smile stretching his lips. “All I said was that it was up to you.”
I held his gaze. I mean really held it. I tried to gather an impression of it and store it away for later. As I fancied that, just for an instant, Jake was showing me who he really was.
“If the 100,000-pound package cannot make your mind up for you, perhaps I can.” As he said that, he leaned forward, locked an arm on the table, and looked right up at me.
Yeah, I’ll admit that my stomach twitched again, telling me I should lean in and plant my lips on his. But no, I wasn’t that stupid.
I frowned and tilted my head to the side. “… What are you suggesting?”
“That I know you far better than you think I do.”
“You won’t be able to push away the lure of adventure. It’s in your bones now.” He shrugged. “And trust me, you’ll never be able to get rid of it. So you either give into it,” he said, his voice hitting that husky pitch once more, “or you regret it for the rest of your life.”
I stared at Jake steadily. I knew what the right thing to do was. I knew what the only thing to do was. But here’s the thing – it isn’t what I wanted to do.
Because Jake Grimsby, the bastard, was right. Ever since I’d come back from my harrowing adventure on that train, I’d still been thinking about treasure hunting.
It seemed that no matter how much danger I faced, Jake was right – it was still in my bones.
He leaned back. “Well, what’ll it be, Miss Diamond?”
“I want you to sign on the dotted line before we go.”
Jake smiled. He slipped a hand into his jacket and pulled out a letter. It had a fancy wax seal on one side. He shifted the letter up and down. “Already done. Now,” he leaned forward, stood up, and reached his hand out to me, “do we have a deal?”
I looked up at Jake Grimsby. For some reason, he looked like an angel offering me adventure and a solution to the doldrums that was my life, but at the same time, he looked like a grinning tiger.
So what did I do?
I gave in, took the tiger’s hand, and let him do all the shaking.
Once it was done, it was done.
I was thrust back into the world I hated and yet loved with every fiber of my being.
“Do we really have to sit out here? And do I really need to wear this?”
“What’s the matter? You look attractive,” Jake said as he leaned back on his metal chair, smiling at several socialites as they walked past.
We were in Maradova. You see, Jake acted fast. Of course he acted fast. Jake Grimsby had fast tattooed over his head. He was not the kind of guy to take his time.
Literally half a day after I’d signed that contract, he’d arrived at my door with a taxi, headed for the airport. There’d been two tickets in his hand and a particular kind of smile on his lips.
Ever since then, I’d been regretting my decision.
Now I was sitting in a really expensive restaurant that was dug into the side of the curious city of Marata, the capital of Maradova.
Marata was on a large island in a seriously large lake.
It was picturesque. I mean postcard perfect. Which was ironic, considering a postcard had gotten me here in the first place.
That was my point.
Maradova, and mostly this island, screamed puzzle box at you. Weird thing to scream at you? Sure. But you know the puzzles I’m talking about. The ones your grandparents buy from the post office. The ones with castles and intricate gardens and fairytale European lands.
Yeah, that was Maradova.
Marata was on a large rising section of island in the middle of a massive lake, and every single building was picture perfect. Though most of them were old, there were modern buildings interspersed artfully between them. And right at the top of the island? A castle. A castle that looked like it was out of a frigging Disney movie.
Okay, I get it – what I’m describing sounds crazy. It sound like a complete mismatch. It isn’t. Trust me on that.
A part of me had always wanted to visit Maradova. And hey, now I was here. Sitting back uncomfortably in a metal chair on the balcony of one of the most expensive restaurants in the city.
Around me were socialites of Europe. Everything from royalty to old money to celebrities. They were all chatting and walking around in their slinky dresses and suits, irritating the hell out of me.
And the reason there irritating the hell out of me was because I stuck out like a sore thumb.
For some reason, I’d allowed Jake to organize my clothes. We’d left in such a hurry that I hadn’t had a chance to pack. Well, he’d organized me clothes that make me look like I was a Florida grandmother.
I’m not kidding you. I was in three-quarter-length pants and some kind of weird ugly blouse thing, and I had sandals on.
I looked like an utter mess.
Something the extremely pretty socialites seemed to note as they giggled behind their hands.
I sat on my metal chair, my chin locked against my hand as I stared at Jake with daggers in my eyes.
“There’s no need for you to look at me like that.”
“Why did you dress me up to look like an old lady?”
“I think that’s rude to old ladies.”
“You’re telling me I look worse?”
“No, I’m telling you that style is a matter of opinion. You look fine,” he added.
“I look horrible. I’d ask you where the nearest store is, but I doubt they have my size.”
“And what’s wrong with your size?” he asked.
I looked at him. I used that particular skill I’d been developing my entire life. The skill that told me when someone was bullshitting. You see, only about 30 percent of the population actually don’t give a shit about somebody’s looks. The other 70 percent – sometimes including the overweight – care. It’s ingrained in them. They think that if you’re thinner, you’re better.
Now I used my skills on Jake, trying to see if he was one of the latter.
He appreciated what I was doing that, because he smiled blandly. “There’s no reason to look daggers at me, Audrey. I’m being sincere. Now, ignore them,” he said as he shrugged toward the socialites closest to us. “They’re irrelevant to us. There’s only one thing we’re here for.”
“I get that,” I said, letting my voice drop. Though Jake seemed to be happy to discuss our secret plans in public, I wasn’t.
This caused him to arch an eyebrow. “Maybe I should contract you again. If you get through this and find us what we want.”
Could I hit him? If I hit him, would it not just breach my contract, but get me shoved into a Maradova prison?
But it would be worth it, right?
“I told you to stop looking daggers at me. Now, enjoy a drink,” he nodded at my cocktail. “And soak up the atmosphere.”
“I’d rather get to work, actually.”
“This is work.”
“How is this work? Unless you define rubbing shoulders with Europe’s finest work, then we’re doing nothing but wasting time.”
“Firstly, these aren’t Europe’s finest. Never confuse money for worth. Secondly, we’re observing.”
I frowned. “What?”
I often accused James of dragging me along on missions without telling me the full facts. Now I was with his brother, I appreciated that Jake Grimsby was worse on every level. Fair enough, he worked for some secret, shadowy government agency, and there was an obvious limit on how much he could tell me.
Still, I felt like I was a bull being led around by the nose.
“If our information is correct, the next clue is inside Petrova Castle,” he stated suddenly.
I blinked hard, looking like I was a theatrical actor trying to let people in the back row realize how surprised I was. “I’m sorry? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” I hissed as I leaned in close.
“Because there’s a time and a place. You get to learn that now you’re a secret agent,” he said as he actually leaned forward and patted me tenderly on the hand.
I yanked my hand back, grabbed my drink, and drank it angrily.
This caused him to laugh. “Now, now, don’t bring any attention to us. I thought you understood that?” He looked pointedly at my clothes.
I frowned at him. “So that’s why you dressed me up as a cat lady? Because you didn’t want me to draw any attention?” I spat through stiff lips. “Then why did you dress like a male model?”
Whoops, wrong description.
I could get away with referring to James’ hotness – but that was because we had a different relationship.
Jake did this weird thing where he tilted his head to the side and the slowest smile spread across his lips. He seemed to enjoy every damn second of it, too. “You’re implying I’m attractive enough to be a male model?”
“You want me to empty the contents of my drink into your lap?” I spat back.
He brought up a hand and spread his fingers wide. That was obviously his go-to move around me. “The answer, Audrey, is yes. You are quite distracting. We must also keep up appearances.”
“Are you referring to your bullshit story that I’m an archaeologist?” I said as I snorted. The reason it was so damn amusing to me was because I got immediate images of Indiana Jones. I saw myself running around the city finding valuables and shouting at people that they belonged in a museum – not the people, mind, the valuables. Unless I was starting up an aggressive campaign to increase patronage at the local exhibition hall. That, or you know, squealing wildly at snakes and running from rats – Indiana was a versatile chap.
Jake shifted in, and for the first time, his face stiffened in obvious anger. It wasn’t fake, and he wasn’t playing a game. “Be careful,” he said simply. “Yes, I am referring to that,” he said that, not repeating my statement again.
I didn’t honestly think that the socialites around us gave a shit about me. They thought it was curious I was sitting next to a supremely hot Brit sipping at a lurid green cocktail, sure. Apart from the curiosity, they couldn’t care less who I was. Certainly not enough to lean in and listen to our conversation.
But maybe Jake actually had standards, and he really was a secret agent, because he didn’t refer to his stupid plan again.
And what was his stupid plan?
He was a rich invester, and I was his archaeologist. And together, we were searching for something on the island.
As far as plans went, it was pretty crap. Because it was a little too close to the truth. No, he wasn’t a rich benefactor – that technically he kind of was. No, technically I wasn’t an archaeologist, either – but considering I knew a lot about history, in a way I almost was as well.
But the salient point here was that we were looking for something on the island.
Still, Jake had all the money and all the cards, so he got to come up with the plans.
“It makes sense you dress like that, and it makes sense for me to dress like this,” he said quietly as he brought a hand up, latched it on his chin, and tapped his fingers on the side of his face.
I rolled my eyes. I could continue the argument, but he was right – this was not the place.
I took another sip of my cocktail and sighed. I found my mind lurching toward James. I was serious – it didn’t shift toward him gently; it lurched as if I was trying to throw myself at his memory.
Because if he was here, this would be different.
Dammit, I’d thought of James again, I suddenly realized as a pang of guilt sailed through me. It felt like I was being stabbed in the heart repeatedly.
If James were here, he wouldn’t be coming up with a better plan than his brother – he would be dragging me toward the nearest plane. Because James understood that this world was too dangerous for me.
If he ever found out….
“Don’t look like that,” Jake said, “this will work.”
I pulled my attention back onto him, only because it was more pleasant than imagining how defeated and betrayed James would look if he ever found out what I was doing. It had been bad enough when he’d sprung me on that train….
I shook my head and looked at him again, finally pushing James completely from my mind. “Okay, back to the fact that you know it’s in the castle. How the hell are we going to get access to the castle? Its private property, isn’t it?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. Even before Jake had appeared at my doorway offering me this contract, I’d done my research on this place. I knew that, though, once upon a time, Maradova had had a Royal Family, they’d abolished the monarchy, realizing they were a monumental waste of money.
Though the government originally had retained all of the property relating to the Royal Family, after a while, it had become too much of a money sink, and they’d sold it to strengthen the economy.
The castle in the middle of this island now belonged to one Count Driscoll. He could trace his lineage back to the Royal Family, and even though they’d been abolished, he retained the name Count. And considering he was rich enough to own a huge frigging castle, nobody challenged him on that.
Coming back around to my original point – the castle was private property. We would require the Count’s permission to get inside.
“To our left right now is the Count’s personal secretary,” Jake said as he brought his cocktail to his lips, hid his mouth as he spoke, then took a swig of the lurid green liquid.
It honestly looked as if he was drinking something designed for a three-year-old – well, ignoring the copious amounts of alcohol. But the color would put anyone off. Anyone normal.
He very much wasn’t normal. A normal person would have told me what we were looking for before we entered this joint.
Very surreptitiously – a heck of a lot more surreptitiously than Jake could manage – I shifted to the side on the premise of arching my shoulders.
I caught a glimpse of a skinny woman in a tight black and white dress. She had pointed heels on with such thin stilettos, it was a surprise and she didn’t get caught in metal grating.
She had sharp features and perfectly shiny black hair that was cut at her jaw line.
She was very pretty, but in an angled, hard way. Maybe that wasn’t just her expression. As, with just one glance at her, I realized she was the kind of secretary who could and would break bones for her employer.
“Shelley Hope,” Jake said under his breath, only ever speaking when the hubbub in the restaurant and out on the balcony reached such a pitch that his voice would be incapable of traveling.
“That sounds like an English name,” I pointed out.
“Congratulations, Sherlock,” Jake quipped. “She is English. Used to work in the British Museum, in fact. A talented curator, apparently.”
This caused a pronounced frown to press across my lips. “Who the hell would go from being a curator of the British Museum to being a secretary of some lame Count?”
Jake pulled his cocktail away from his lips long enough to press a finger to them. “Be careful how you speak of Mr. Driscoll,” he said. “He’s extremely popular around these parts. If it weren’t for buying the castle, he wouldn’t have invigorated the capital, and the economy would be dead. He brings in a lot of money,” he said emphasizing the word lot. “Has a talent for business.”
“You just called him Mr.,” I said.
“Forgive me if I don’t choose to recognize made-up titles,” Jake managed. “But from now on, he’s Count Driscoll, and you don’t dare say a word against him in the city. Understand?”
“You should’ve told me this earlier,” I pointed out through clenched teeth.
“I like to play most things by-ear. I’ve always been known for my spontaneity,” he said, and I swore his eyes locked on my figure for a second before he drank the last few dregs his cocktail. He placed the glass down, stretched his shoulders, and stood. “Come on, Miss Partridge,” he said, using my fake name. “The Verini Papers won’t find themselves,” he announced loudly.
I didn’t have time to ask what the heck he was doing. As he announced the name of the Verini Papers out loud, Shelley beside us twitched her head around so quickly, it was like someone had attached a rope to it.
I saw her out of the corner of my eyes as her cheeks paled. She frowned, too.
Jake shot me a specific look.
I stood. He was trying to get her attention, wasn’t he?
Oh well. Though Jake hadn’t told me the plan, I could figure it out myself.
“We’re close, you know. You did good to hire me,” I added as I flicked Jake what I hoped was a competent smile.
“Of course – you’re the best. Now—”
Shelley stood. She patted down her dress and walked straight towards us.
Without an introduction or even a hello, she shoved her hand toward me. “Shelley Hope.”
I blinked before accepting it. “Oh, it’s nice to meet you?” I tried.
“Sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing what you were discussing. You’re after the Verini Papers?”
I looked at Jake, giving him the cue to take over.
He smiled. Though I wanted to tell myself it was a simpering smile, there was way too much charm behind it.
Except it didn’t work on Shelley.
Jake cleared his throat. “My name is Alexandros Winters. I procure things for my clients,” he said.
If Jake was trying not to look dodgy, he was failing. He procured things for his clients?
If I’d been allowed to create our back stories, I would have tried not to make them sound like a James Bond plot.
“I’m an antiques dealer,” Jake added after Shelley paused for too long. “Miss Partridge here is an archaeologist in my employ.”
“And who gave you permission to search the city for the Verini Papers?” Shelley snapped.
Way to go to stay under the radar, I thought with a snide internal laugh as I locked my gaze on Jake.
I waited for him to flounder. Jake didn’t flounder.
“The Maradova Government. They’re my client,” he said flatly.
Either he was playing a seriously big gamble, or Jake wasn’t lying, and he had the Maradova Government on his side.
Shelley blinked hard. “Am I to believe that?”
“As I have no idea who you are, I don’t really care what you believe.”
“I’m going to need to see some government papers confirming your claim,” she said as she tilted her head back. If Jake thought that I looked terrifying when I was indignant, I was absolutely nothing compared to Shelley. She looked as if she’d been schooled from childhood to stare down her nose at people.
Jake chuckled softly. “I’m going to repeat once more that I have no idea who you are. Good day.” With that, he turned to walk away.
Shelley actually grabbed his arm.
Up until that point, I hadn’t made my mind up on her, but now I had to stifle a smile again. Because Jake stiffened. Anyone who could make Jake stiffen was a friend of mine.
“Do you mind, Miss?” he said.
“I told you, I’m going to have to see some government papers—”
“Look, I’m afraid we have no idea who you are. You have not announced your profession, and if you wish to seek official correspondence between us and the government, you are going to need to show some proof showing that we have an obligation to share anything with you,” I said, channeling my uncle who was a lawyer.
Shelley turned on me, and she shot me the stoniest look. She also looked up and down my clothes. “I very much doubt that my government would have hired you.”
I wasn’t put off by her nasty look. Though I did reassess my earlier conclusion, deciding that maybe I didn’t like this woman after all. She was part of the 70 percent, ha? Figures.
Jake, however, maybe genuinely didn’t care what people looked like, because at that, he took a slow step back and broke Shelley’s grip on his arm. “That was extremely rude. Also, unless you’re talking about the British government,” he said emphasizing the word British, allowing his accent to come to the fore, “I don’t think you can speak for the Maradova Government. Nor can you request official correspondence. Now, my colleague here is correct – unless you can provide us with verifiable information to confirm that you have any claim to our correspondence with the Maradovan Federal Government, I suggest you stop wasting our time.”
Boom. If I’d just channeled my lawyer uncle, then Jake had just channeled a judge. A seriously pissed off one.
Shelley’s cheeks slackened.
“I take it from your silence that you have absolutely no official claim over our correspondence. You do understand that it is a crime—” Jake began, obviously about to point out that impersonating authority was an offense.
Somebody cleared their throat.
They walked toward us.
It took me a moment, then I realized who they were.
Count Driscoll. I’d already seen pictures of him.
He’d been seated with his back to us, and I hadn’t recognized him.
Now he pushed a hand toward Jake. “I do apologize for my secretary’s actions. She can become a little flustered.”
Jake didn’t look surprised at Count Driscoll’s sudden appearance, indicating he’d already known he was there.
Bastard. I didn’t so much feel like I was being led around by the nose anymore – I felt like I was being led around with a paper bag over my head.
I didn’t take the opportunity to slap Jake and tell him that in future he was to tell me of the plan before he started enacting it. I watched.
Because I had to appreciate this was a pretty entertaining show.
Every single person in the restaurant had stopped what they were doing to stare.
If Jake had wanted to keep our operation quiet, he’d failed. I swore everybody would recognize us now.
And none more so than Count Driscoll. Because he had the stare of a man who never forgot a thing.
Jake allowed him to shake his hand.
Jake was doing a pretty good job of looking affronted. He wasn’t tilting his head back and staring down his nose at anyone – like Shelley had done. That didn’t matter. It was in the way he held his body. He seemed to give the impression that it would be hard to placate him.
“I overheard your conversation,” Count Driscoll continued. He had an odd accent. It sounded British and familiar in places, but then on words it would twist, becoming almost musical.
But let’s face it, his accent wasn’t the most important thing about Count Driscoll. His looks were.
I know that sounds ironic considering I’d been splitting up society into those fake, judgmental souls who cared about what people looked like, and those saints who didn’t.
But I imagined to understand Count Driscoll, you first had to understand his appearance.
He looked exactly like European royalty. He was swarthy, had dark hair, and had a smile that could light up a Christmas tree. And that was nothing to mention his eyes. They were an unusual pale brown. Oh, and if I thought Jake’s eyes could sparkle, it was absolutely nothing compared to Count Driscoll.
Did I mention the fact he was a Count and he apparently was rich enough to own a castle?
Yeah, the guy appeared to be the full package. But at the same time, my internal radar started to blare.
Something about this guy felt wrong.
Jake let Count Driscoll do all the shaking, and when he was done, Jake let his hand drop. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Count.”
“Indeed. Now I must apologize again for my secretary’s… diligence. Though she is not from this great country, she holds a lot of loyalty for these lands. Enough that she becomes… overly cautious at the possibility of somebody stealing our natural treasures.”
Though I knew that my role in this conversation was to stay quiet, screw that. Jake wasn’t the only person who could play a game.
“Excuse me?” I said pointedly. “Steal your natural treasures? We’ve been contracted by your government,” I spat.
To be honest, I had no idea if Jake had made that up. It was pretty stupid to continue to emphasize it if it were a lie.
Jake didn’t tell me to shut the hell up. He smiled. “She has a point.”
“I apologize,” Count Driscoll said, his tone lilting and sounding even more musical than ever. He also tilted his head to the side and smiled at me.
His smile was picture-perfect. It looked as if he’d been a magazine model his whole life.
Did it do things to my stomach?
It should have. But I stopped it. I may not be able to stop Jake Grimsby’s charming smiles from making my tummy twitch, but maybe that was because Jake wasn’t a complete bastard.
He was as suspicious as all hell. I started to wonder what kind of spell he’d cast over the citizens of this city if they all thought he was a godsend. Anyone who’d met him would’ve realized he was a slimeball.
Maybe he appreciated I wasn’t reacting to his charm, because he got the strangest smile on his face. “I’m afraid we got off on the wrong foot. I did not mean to suggest that you are here to steal our country’s treasures.”
“That’s good. Because you have no authority to police them. You’re a private citizen,” I said, emphasizing the word private.
Though Jake hadn’t stiffened before and he appeared happy to let me do what I wanted, now his smile locked over his teeth.
I remembered his warning from before that this city adored the Count and that I shouldn’t talk negatively of him in public. Yeah, this wasn’t just talking negatively of him – this was dissing him to his face in front of everyone.
Shelley looked outraged.
It was too late to back down now. I did not swallow my words. I looked right at the Count.
“You are correct,” he said with another one of those nods. “I have no authority but a moral one. As my country is one,” he said as he spread his arms wide, another charming smile spreading his lips at the same time, “I care for with all my heart and soul. But I appreciate that in doing so, I have accidentally stepped on your toes. So please allow me to apologize.”
Jake was no longer stiff. He let his shoulders fall. “Thank you,” he said.
“Perhaps you would like to join us for a drink? We have yet to order our food. Have you launched?” Driscoll asked.
“No. We just had a snack. But I couldn’t let you buy are lunches—”
“I insist. In Maradova, when we apologize, we do so in style.”
That was lame, I commented to myself. When we apologize we do it in style? That was his country’s claim to fame?
I didn’t breathe a word of this out loud. I simply fell into step behind Jake as he walked over to Driscoll’s table.
I wondered if Jake had planned this. Because if he had, he had frigging magical powers. Or maybe he’d just hoped to get lucky.
We hadn’t gained entry to the castle yet, but meeting its owner was a start.
Shelley did not look happy. She kept shooting me mutinous glances.
I wondered what made the woman tick. You didn’t become a young curator of the British Museum if you weren’t all that. But to give it up to come work for this creep? There had to be more to her story. Though it would be easy to assume it was just money, for some reason, I doubted that.
If James were here, he’d tell me I was jumping to conclusions. James wasn’t here.
And I’d stupidly thought about him again.
I tried to swallow the guilt that rose in my stomach as I sat.
I was the first to sit, and I’d done so automatically.
Shelley stiffened. “That is the Count’s seat,” she said pointedly.
I opened my mouth to childishly say that I hadn’t seen his name written on it, then I reminded myself that we were trying to get these two onside. I moved to get up.
“Please stay seated, Madam,” the Count said politely. “What’s mine is yours.” He sat beside me.
Jake and Shelley sat on the opposite side. While they were facing the restaurant, the Count and I were facing the view. And what a view it was. I hadn’t really had a chance to appreciate it yet as I’d been spending most of my time arguing with Jake frigging Grimsby. Now I actually let a smile press across my lips as I stared out across the lake to the mainland beyond.
Maybe I got a particular whimsical look on my face, because the Count chuckled as he leaned close. “She is beautiful, isn’t she?”
My stomach twitched as it told me he was talking about me. He did shoot me a lingering glance, after all.
But then I quickly caught up with myself and reminded myself that this guy was a jerk.
I pressed a smile over my lips. “It’s stunning. Have you lived here your whole life? I detect an accent,” I said.
Shelley stiffened again. “You should be politer,” she warned.
“Now, now, Shelley. She wasn’t being rude. Plus, she was right before – I am but a humble private citizen,” he said, emphasizing the word private.
I smiled. Maybe now was the point where I should apologize, but I didn’t. I reached forward, grabbed up the menu, and started to leaf through it. “So where did you study?” I asked.
I could tell that Jake was paying a great deal of attention to me. He wasn’t telling me to shut up, though, so he obviously trusted my ability to draw information out of the Count.
I didn’t honestly know if I trusted my ability to do the same, but the guy was pissing me off, so I was willing to give it a go.
“I studied in many places. From France to your own country of Britain. I must admit, I’ve always loved Britain. From your castles to your pageantry, you understand the importance of tradition.”
I arched my eyebrow as I kept staring at the menu.
I could read between the lines. I didn’t need to do a psychological assessment on the Count’s choice of words and his tone to understand his underlying point. What he liked about Britain was its Royal Family.
Maybe the old Count wasn’t so happy that his government had abolished the monarchy all those years ago. Maybe he’d all but brought the Royal Family back on this island, and that was why Shelley was getting so irate at me dissing the Count. It was the equivalent of some snarky foreigner yapping at the Queen.
“Are you ready to order?” Driscoll asked me.
For some reason I could tell he was itching to call me my dear. But at the same time he’d obviously figured from my personality that if he dared to do that, I would bite back.
I made a face, twisting my lips in. “I think so. Is there a price range you want me to stick to, though?” I asked.
I was never usually this rude. Then again, I never usually had a reason to be this rude.
Jake clenched his teeth together, and Shelley looked as if she wanted to grab up the bottle of water beside her, break it, and stab me to death.
The Count chuckled quietly under his breath. “If you’re inquiring as to my financial situation—” he began.
“Just the sincerity of your apology,” I said strictly.
I did it again – insult him. Damn, I was usually a pushy girl, but not this pushy.
That being said, I was enjoying it. What was the worst that could happen? We would fuck up, and Jake would have to take me home. Considering I’d already regretted my decision to come, that wasn’t that bad a possibility.
But maybe the Count was the kind who liked to be treated mean, because a genuine smile spread his lips. “Then please do not question. You can order anything and everything you want. And if you don’t find it suitable, you can come up to the castle for dinner.”
Bang. In the bag.
I’d done it.
I could see Jake out of the corner of my eye, and he actually looked surprised. Then he swallowed a smile as he brought his menu up and started to read it.
Shelley was pale with rage.
I now placed my menu down and looked right at Count Driscoll. “I was hoping you’d do that,” I said honestly.
He arched an eyebrow. There was a playful edge to it. “Invite you back to the castle?” he said, though I could appreciate he wanted to say my place.
I nodded. “I’m an archaeologist.”
“That castle’s meant to be amazing.”
“I assure you, it’s not meant to be amazing – it is. If that was your ulterior motive from the beginning,” he said, his eyebrow arching higher, “you should have just told me.”
“Now, now, are you saying I have nothing to be angry over? If that’s the case—”
He brought his hands up. That playful smile was still locked across his lips. “To do so would be questioning my sincerity over apologizing, wouldn’t it?”
I nodded at him and nodded.
“Then I wouldn’t dream of it. Now, please order whatever you want, including wine and caviar. And tonight, I will give you a full tour.”
Was it just me, or did something delightfully husky happen to his voice on the words full tour? Indicating that, you know, I wouldn’t just get a tour of the Royal throne room – I’d get the bed chambers, too.
I told myself not to blush, and for the first time in my life, my cheeks actually behaved.
It didn’t take long for the food to arrive. I could tell that the kitchens were geared to take the Count’s order over anyone else’s. It didn’t matter how rich the socialites dining in this restaurant were – it mattered that the Count was the Count.
I wondered how popular he would be off the island on the mainland? If there was this much support for him in the rest of the country, why wouldn’t they just bring back the Royal Family?
I made a mental note to do an Internet search when I got back to my room to answer just what the people of the rest of Maradova thought about the Count.
Yeah, I get it. That wasn’t my primary remit. I’d come here to find the next clue, which according to Jake, was in the castle. But I got the impression that this was important somehow. And even if it wasn’t important, it was a mystery. And you know what I’m like around those.
We wined and dined in style, and I have to admit, the view was great. No, I wasn’t just talking about the lake and the mainland stretching along the horizon beyond.
Yeah, I was talking about the Count. Even though the guy was obviously as dodgy as all hell, damn was he handsome.
The view wouldn’t last, and neither would his polite company. You see, I’d come here for a reason, and that reason was about to rise up and smack me in the face.
Once he got out of bed, that was.
“Why are you calling me at 4 o’clock in the morning?” I said as I planted a hand on my head and groaned into my palm.
There was a protracted silence.
I already knew who was calling – I’d checked the caller ID.
I frowned, lips pressing hard against my palm and dragging them a little down my face. “… Sandy?”
I heard him take a tense breath. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
I pulled my hand from my face and sat up, my pillow tumbling off my bed, striking the bedside beside me and knocking off my clock.
I reached down, plucked up the pillow, and frowned even harder. “How about both.”
“I’m going to give you the good news first.” There was such a careful note to Sandy’s tone that my stomach twitched hard.
I got out of bed. I was fully awake now. I plucked up my clock, dusted it off, and sat it on the bedside. Then I headed for the door. “Do I need to be prepped and out of the door for this?”
“It would probably be better for your sanity. I can’t see you leaving her in harm’s way and you getting a good night’s sleep.”
One magical word got all of my attention. One magical word felt like a fucking brick to the face. “Audrey?” My voice became so constricted, I think I must’ve sounded like I was going through puberty on fast forward.
I think I heard Sandy wince. Not, of course, that you can hear somebody wince, but my imagination suddenly kicked into overdrive. The reason it kicked into overdrive was because of one frigging name. And the woman who owned that name.
Though I was very much not the kind to chew my nails, I jammed my thumb into my mouth and practically chomped it down to the nail bed. “What the hell has she done? She hasn’t gone off for the next clue, has she? How did she even figure out where it was?”
“She had help,” Sandy said.
I frowned. Then reality hit me. You know before how I’d said Audrey’s name was like a brick to the face? Yeah well, my brother’s was like a shotgun to the back of the head.
I walked back to my bed before I fell down, and I sat on it, my knees weak. “What has my bastard of a brother done?”
“Contracted her. If my sources are correct, she’s currently in the puzzle-box-perfect country of Maradova. The location of the next clue,” he added needlessly.
“Why the hell did you allow her to leave the country? You should’ve put her on the frigging terrorist watchlist or something,” I began to rant.
“Whoa, steady cowboy.”
“Don’t fucking call me cowboy, and fix this,” I practically screamed.
Fortunately, I had an expensive apartment, and the walls were thick enough that the neighbors wouldn’t hear. But if Sandy kept pushing me, I imagined all of England would hear.
“James, I know this is gutting, but you have to appreciate your brother’s involved,” he said, emphasizing my brother.
My gut did this thing where it twisted a full 360 and I was certain it was going to jump out of my nostrils.
Not a pleasant image? Not a pleasant feeling, either. Why was it that Audrey Diamond had the ability to elicit so much frigging pain in me?
Oh yeah, because I secretly liked her.
Yep. That’s right. I’d just admitted to that. On paper, there was no reason for me to like Audrey. And no, that wasn’t a comment about her figure. As I’d already pointed out numerous times, I quite liked her figure. Who wouldn’t?
Not my point, though. My point was that we were very different personalities. Audrey jumped into things. I was a frigging actuary. I thought everything through. And if I did encounter a situation that required action, I was at least more circumspect about it.
Audrey damn Diamond was the kind of woman to jump from a balcony, I reminded myself with a wince as if I’d been king hit.
I brought my hand up and honestly tried to hide behind it.
“Are you kicking yourself? Stop kicking yourself. For every problem, there is a solution. So let me hand you a solution.”
“Tell me you’ve got a way to bring her back?” I said, and goddamn did my teeth clench.
“I’m assuming that’s you asking for a miracle, and a bear hasn’t suddenly wandered into your bedroom. Unclench your jaw, and listen up already. There’s no easy way to get Audrey out of there. Not now she’s working for your brother. So the only solution—”
I’d already headed for the door. Sure, it was 4 o’clock in the morning, and a few minutes ago, I’d been so damn pissed off at the fact Sandy had woken me up, I’d been ready to scream blue bloody murder. Now? I was already several steps ahead of myself, flying into whatever ridiculous exotic location Audrey was in and getting ready to drag her back to England just before screaming at her that she was an idiot for having gotten messed up in this world again.
But even as I thought that, I clenched my hand into a fist. Because she wasn’t the idiot – my brother was. And as I well knew from experience, Jake Grimsby had a nasty habit of making you do what you didn’t want to. He’d find a way. He’d isolate some pain point – then he’d press. And if that didn’t work? He’d just press harder.
“Not this time,” I found myself muttering under my breath.
“Sorry? Was that inane comment directed at me? Or are you practicing what you’re going to say to your brother already? Because practice is gonna make perfect on this one. If he’s contracted her, it’s not going to be as easy as flying in and booking her a ticket out of there.”
I clutched hold of the door with a white-knuckled grip.
“Sorry? You actually think he’s contracted her?” My voice couldn’t be higher with stress. Long gone was the time when I’d tried to hide my obvious feelings for Audrey. It was damn obvious to everyone that she was important to me.
So I would get her out of trouble. Even if that involved going toe-to-toe with my brother.
“I thought you had work this week?” Sandy said uselessly.
“I assume you’ve already written in to cancel it?” I asked as I started packing clothes into a small travel bag I always kept handy in my walk-in.
Sandy snorted. “I’m not that efficient. I literally just found out and called you.”
“Well then, Sandy, thank you for volunteering. Write a quick email to my boss asking for immediate leave due to….” My teeth clenched.
“Family matters?” Sandy tried, and he was wise enough to control his tone.
“Family matters,” I agreed darkly, practically spitting the words out.
I finished my whirlwind pack, zipped up my bag, and headed for the door. “The next flight, Sandy – it better be booked.”
“I think you’re gonna need to fly in with a plan this time, James. This is not a simple mission. We’ll be going up against your arch nemesis.”
I kicked the door open at that comment. “He’s my brother.”
“Were you about to correct me and say he’s not your arch nemesis? Because he clearly is. I’ve never met a man who can rile you up the same way he can.”
“I really don’t need a reminder about how much we don’t get on. Just organize the details. Get me all the information you can on their mission and how far along they are. Knowing Audrey,” I said with a deep breath, “it won’t be all that long until she finds the treasure. I want to put an end to this before then. If she finds another Grimsby treasure—”
“Your brother’s never gonna let her go,” Sandy finished my sentence.
Listening to those words was like a punch to the gut.
I pressed my lips together and breathed.
“Sorry, shouldn’t have said that. A little undiplomatic of me. Don’t worry, James – we’ve got this.”
“Why do I detect a hint of insincerity in your voice?” I made it into the kitchen and dumped my bags, then headed over to the filing cabinet where I kept my passport. I grabbed it out and clutched it hard in one hand as I pinned my phone to my ear with my shoulder.
“… Because hope is for fools, and odds are for men like us. And the odds of this situation…” he trailed off and swallowed.
“I don’t need to be reminded of the odds – I calculate them every day.”
“Then I suggest you calculate them well this time, Mr. Actuary, really well. I imagine you’re only going to have one chance.”
I looked up at the door, then I tilted my head over and stared through the windows at London’s skyline.
Sandy was right. I would only have one chance.
So it was time to take it.
I headed through the front door with a grim frown and a gut full of determination. I’d need both.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
“I’m gonna ask once more – why are you in my room?” I said pointedly as I shot Jake a look.
He was seated on the edge of my bed, his arms propped behind him as he leaned back and stared my way.
I had a change of clothes arranged over the chair in front of me, and I’d been about to unbutton my shirt. Then the world’s least favorite secret agent had walked into my room without knocking.
“So we can plan the next stage of the operation.”
“What? Are you actually going to let me in on the secret this time? You’re not going to drag me along like a bull by its nose?”
“I wouldn’t be brave enough to drag you along by your nose, Audrey. And yes – we need to plan the next stage. Because the next stage will be the last stage. We’ll get into the castle, find the clue, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“Firstly, Bob is not my uncle. And you’re an idiot.”
Jake arched an eyebrow. “And what, pray tell, led you to conclude that?”
“Is this your first rodeo?”
“Clearly not. I can provide you with a CV, if I must. However, I ask that you burn it immediately upon receipt and that you sign a secrets act.”
I rolled my eyes at his bad joke. “If this isn’t your first radio, then you’ve clearly forgotten how this world works. We will not be able to find the treasure tonight. Presumably we’ll be thrust into danger after danger, and it will only be after a hell of a lot of blood and sweat and tears that we’ll find the next treasure and the next clue.” As I spoke, I did so with authority. After all, this was my fourth adventure when it came to Grimsby’s postcards.
Jake chuckled lightly. “You’re not with my brother anymore,” he said, voice dropping down low. “You’re with me. And, Audrey Diamond—” He stood suddenly. He was close enough that he loomed above me. He grabbed the lapels of his jacket and tugged them down hard. “Things are different with me. I act fast,” he said, a breath cutting through his words, “and act effectively. Now, put on your dress, get ready, and listen up.”
I snorted. “Firstly, I’m not undressing in front of you.”
He could have made any number of jokes. He could’ve snorted. He could’ve laughed. He could’ve snarled. He did nothing. He pointed to the generous sized bedroom screen on the opposite side of the room. It was a lovely, ornate Oriental affair. I wanted to steal it and take it home with me. Well, I would if I were, you know, a criminal.
I stomped over to the screen with my dress in my hands, indicating to all and sundry that I was not happy that Jake was still in the room.
He chuckled softly. “I can turn around, if that would help? I can’t see anything through the screen though.”
“Sod off,” I snarled. “Now tell me the plan.”
“You’re a logical soul, Audrey Diamond, and you know that I cannot simultaneously sod off whilst telling you the plan. So pick one.”
“Tell me the plan,” I snarled.
“Very well. When we gain entry to the castle, you will specifically ask to be taken to the old throne room.”
“Because it makes sense that the next clue is there.”
I frowned hard from behind the screen. “Why does it make sense that the clue’s there?”
“Because I know how my father worked,” Jake said, his voice dropping low.
Though I knew for a fact that James Chase had daddy issues, I’d assumed his brother was different.
Judging by Jake’s tone, he was not different. I guessed it wouldn’t have been easy to have a father who’d been a secret agent and had spent most of his life gathering Nazi treasure and hiding it around Europe. I’d stick with a handyman dad from Yorkshire, thanks.
“Fine, let’s assume that for some reason you’re right,” I said as I finished dressing and walked out.
Don’t hold your breath – I know you’re expecting one of those oh-my-gosh-she’s-so-pretty moments you get in films all the time. You know the scenes I’m talking about – the ones where the ugly duckling puts on a dress and suddenly looks like Marilyn Munro.
Yeah, it didn’t happen. Jake had bought this dress, and it was ugly as sin.
He didn’t look at me twice. “It’s not for some reason – I am right. You do realize I get paid to do this stuff, don’t you? Tracking down treasure isn’t a hobby of mine,” he said, emphasizing the word hobby.
I arched an eyebrow. “You’re the one who contracted me, buddy. Now, let’s assume you’re right. How exactly do you imagine this will play out? We’ll just find the clues relating to this postcard – which, judging by previous escapades, will probably be some priceless treasure – and we’ll… steal it out from under Count Driscoll’s nose? Considering what went down in the café this morning, I really doubt his secretary is gonna be on board with that.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “I’m not an amateur.”
“So you have a plan, then?” I said hopefully as I latched my hands on my hips and pushed back and forth on the tips of my toes. “Or are we going to have to come up with one on the fly?”
“Yes, I admit, an element of this mission will have to be played by-ear. But I will be well-equipped,” he said. “As will you be.” He got a very specific edge to his tone.
It was one that made me frown. “Wait, are we going to do some James Bond shit?”
He couldn’t have arched his eyebrow any higher. “You’re going to have to clarify. James Bond is fictional—”
“And we’re real – I get that. My point is, are you going to outfit me with all sorts of fancy microphones and poisonous darts and whatnot?”
“Poisonous darts? Really? Do you know what century we’re in?”
“Very funny. What have you got?” I got straight down to business.
This made him chuck his head back and laugh. He clicked his fingers at me. “And that, Audrey Diamond, is what I like about you. As for what I’ve got,” he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box that looked as if it was made for hearing aids, “is a lot.”
Forgive me if I’d been expecting a suitcase full of really cool gadgets.
I made no attempt not to look underwhelmed. “… You’re got a small box. Well done. Should I pat you on the back?”
“You know, I didn’t know you were this sarcastic.”
“What? You would’ve thought twice about hiring me if you’d known about my lip?”
“No. I would’ve boned up on my sarcasm too. This,” he set the box on his lap and opened it with a click, “is a small motion detector, heat sensor, microphone, and camera. It even has its own cellular connection and will be able to phone home.”
“… And you’re going to use it perv on Count Driscoll? He’s attractive, but I wouldn’t bother.”
Jake made a face. “Really? You like Count Driscoll? I would’ve thought you were smart enough to appreciate—”
“That he’s a simpering bastard? Yeah, I noticed that. He’s still got something-something about him when you push away the fact he’s clearly a megalomaniac who wants to get into power and is pretending he’s the king of the country even though he’s only a private citizen. But can you get to the point? What are you going to do with that?”
“When we find the treasure, or at least we locate where we think it is, we’re going to plant this and other little devices like it through the palace. They’ll allow us a clean path to the treasure when we come back for it.”
I frowned. “You mean when he bust in to take it?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t call it busting in. We’re going to be a lot more subtle than that.”
“Are we going to be doing some ninja Mission Impossible shit where we come down from ropes from the ceiling?”
He snorted. “You can try, if you’d like. But I’m getting too old for that type of thing. That’s why we’ve got these.” He tapped the box. “Once they’re in operation, all we’ll have to do is keep a connection to them, and walk in. They’ll tell us when anyone is in the vicinity of them, allowing us to simply wait around until the coast is clear.”
“And if we’re sprung?”
He winked at me. And goddamn did that wink do something to my stomach. “Poisonous darts.”
I looked at him askew, not wanting to speak straightaway, because I was worried my voice would be a little shaky. You see, Jake really had his charms. Sometimes, at least. Most of the time he was still a dick.
Eventually I managed to push his charms away. I put my sensible hat on and tried to figure out how a man like Jake would think. I frowned. “You’ve got some kind of sophisticated Taser weapon, haven't you?” I tried.
He gave a staged frown. “Close. Something a lot more sophisticated, though. I wouldn’t worry. If we’re interrupted, we’ll deal with the interruptions.”
“And if this mission doesn’t go according to plan and they call the police?”
“I’ll use my contacts to get out of prison, and I’ll head back to England feeling very sorry for myself indeed. But with your help, that’s not going to happen. This mission will run smoothly,” he said with utter confidence.
I just looked at him and shook my head.
For some damn reason, I thought of James.
I wished he were here….
And who knows, maybe I’d get my wish.
So here I was on the ground. And I was pissed. I mean really pissed. You see, to those of you who know true anger and irritation the likes of which only a certain Miss Audrey Diamond can produce, my rage was currently sitting at a solid 6 out of 10. Why only 6? Because I knew when Audrey was involved, I had to give room to get really pissed.
Which, judging by the fact she was currently walking arm in arm with my brother, was a distinct possibility.
I’d made it over here in good time. In great time, in fact. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, I hadn’t eaten, and I hadn’t shaved. On purpose. I looked like a derelict – or at least the traveling-bum variety. Which was precisely the image I was going for. I was not dressed up in my usual expensive clothes – and I’d rather found a pair of nasty ass skinny jeans from a local store, and rounded off the outfit with a torn T-shirt. I didn’t just look grunge – I looked as if I cared about as much for my appearance as I did for how I smelt. And yeah, that is to say I reeked to high heaven.
I wasn’t wearing any cologne, and I sure as hell wasn’t wearing any deodorant.
It wasn’t to punish passing strangers for Audrey’s misdemeanors. Again – it was just part of the look.
I was dealing with professionals here. And no – I wasn’t deigning to refer to either my brother or Audrey damn Diamond as professionals. They were a bunch of raving idiots. Count Driscoll on the other hand?
Grade-A psychopathic bastard.
When I finally got my hands on Audrey and managed to haul her ass back to London, I might eventually tell her how stupid she’d been and fill her in on exactly the kind of man Driscoll was.
And the answer to that question? A nasty piece of work. He was suspected of aiding trafficking rings through Eastern Europe. Yeah – I’m saying he was that level of scum-sucking nasty. The kind of leave-no-prisoners prick who would do anything and everything just to make cash. And in Count Driscoll’s case, he could add royal ambitions to that set of undesirable desires. It seemed the count came from the old Royal Family of this random country, and he longed for times more regal.
Whilst I’d been on the plane, Sandy had figured out where Audrey and Jake were, and he’d tracked down their most likely target. They’d given me all the information I needed on Count Kristof Driscoll. I get it – Driscoll isn’t the ordinary name of folks from these parts – there was a reason behind that. For a long time the people of Maratova had despised any reminders of the old Royal Family – and the Count’s parents had been smart enough to change his last name. Then, one day, Driscoll had come back from studying abroad, had bought this castle with his ill-gotten gains, and had conned the people into thinking he was anything other than a total two-faced crim.
Anyone with access to a brain – or an Interpol report – would know all of this. Which presumably included my brother.
The fact he was pushing on with this mission nonetheless meant, as always, that Jake didn’t care what he put on the line just as long as he had a chance of getting closer to treasure.
“The bastard,” I muttered under my breath.
I pressed my back further into the wall, pulling my travel guide higher until it covered my face. I wasn’t actually trying to make out with the high-gloss pages. I got plenty of action elsewhere, thank you. Nor was I that interested in the attractions of this goddamn picturesque lake-town distraction. I was hiding my frigging face from a certain couple striding up the promenade.
Audrey, weirdly, didn’t look anything like Audrey. Same face, sure – and same perpetually irritated expression. Her clothes, however?
She clearly hadn’t picked them. I knew enough about Audrey Diamond to appreciate that she would not be seen dead in a frumpy assed dress like that.
Which meant Jake had picked them. And that there? Why, that there turned my stomach. Audrey would go blue in the face before letting me pick her clothes, but one simple mission with Jake Grimsby and she’d obviously changed her tune.
Goddammit, Audrey. I thought you had better standards than this? You’ve frigging up and wondered into the lion’s den dressed as a lamb – and you hate wool. The frigging stuff makes you itch.
It wasn’t the best of insults, but to be honest, with my addled brain, it was the best I could manage right now.
Continuing the one-sided swearing match in my head, I fell into step behind them.
I wasn’t right behind them or anything – I wasn’t that much of an idiot. I was far enough away and looked like enough of a wandering bum not to draw anyone’s attention – even my brother’s. Because yeah, I had to appreciate that Jake had certain skills. But there was a massive problem with Jake’s skills. Idiots like Jake with massive resources and a huge government checkbook often thought they were undefeatable. And thinking that dulled their senses. When I was out in the field doing a mission, I had to rely on my actual skills in order to get by – even if often my skills weren't my ability to shoot and run but rather my wit and charm. Not the point. I had to keep myself sharp in every way. With Jake’s propensity to rely on backup and his belief that no matter how hard the going got, the Crown would always break him out of jail and patch up his wounds, he didn’t have to be as aware of dangerous as I did. So it was easy enough to slip into step behind them.
“I really don’t like this plan,” I picked up Audrey’s mumbled words. They were being carried along by the wind. She probably thought no one could pick them up – but I had great hearing, and I was really motivated.
“For the last time – it will be fine. What could possibly go wrong?” Jake said.
Oh, I could think of a few things.
My brother’s life was about to get quite wrong. The kind of wrong that was going to pummel his face until he regretted stealing my girl.
No – I wasn’t going to take that back. Audrey was my girl – at least when it came to hunting treasure. Not the point. Jake had stepped on my toes, and it was now time to step on his.
“There are still so many things that could go wrong,” I said as we finally reached the palace.
There was a knot in my stomach. One of those treacherous, toxic bloody knots I was starting to realize was a hazard of spending any time whatsoever
near Jake Grimsby. It was like a frigging noose around my intestines. And it told me one thing – that there was no way I was going to make
it out of here tonight safely. Jake was an idiot, he hadn’t thought things through, and I was either going to end up in a Maratovan prison,
or I was just gonna end up plain shot dead – neither of which were particularly attractive options.
“You don’t need to look like that,” he said for what felt like the fiftieth time. “Don’t you trust me already, Audrey Diamond?”
“I thought you said you were a professional?”
He brought his hands up and spread his fingers wide, a semblance of a charming smile on his face. I say a semblance, because I swear there was
a little rigidity around his lips, as if the idiot actually appreciated how plain stupid this mission was. “I am a professional,” he managed.
I arched an eyebrow and leaned in, clutching my skirts in one hand as I pulled them off the dusty cobbles beneath me. “If you’re a frigging professional,
I suggest you stop using my real name,” I hissed.
He shrugged, indicating I had a point. He pointed forward with his thumb. “All right. Time to show them what you’re made of.”
What I was made of? Something a heck of a lot smarter than Jake Grimsby. But if the smart side of me screamed at me to jump back and run for the
hills, the rest of me was already invested in this mission. Plus, a tiny, tiny little fraction of me told me it could be fun. After all, if
this worked, and we found the next treasure, we’d be well on our way to finally finding the Grimsby treasure. And that? Would be unimaginable.
The rest of me appreciated that the lure of gold would not make up for abandoning one’s intelligence and life.
It was too late now, however, as, with a glance upward, I saw a certain Count Driscoll walking toward us across the cobbles.
I almost didn’t recognize him. I almost thought he was out of some ye-olde drama. He wasn’t wearing a suit – he was wearing some old form of regalia.
He was in a stiff Prussian blue uniform, with shiny brass buttons down the front of his double-breasted jacket, and with actual medals on his
breast. He had black pants with blue lines down their legs to complete the outfit.
I would say he looked over the top – but with his strong jaw and bright eyes, he looked as if he was out of some old painting of years gone by.
That, or he’d just hopped a time machine from a time when things were simpler.
Jake leaned toward me. “Here we go. Follow my lead,” he added with a hiss as he smiled, pressed his arms out wide, and actually bowed. It was a
corny move, but somehow Jake pulled it off. Possibly because underneath his suit was a set of seriously refined muscles.
Muscles I hoped were up to the task of getting us out of this shit storm once it arrived.
The Count exchanged pleasantries with Jake, but all the while, his eyes were on me. His undivided attention made my stomach knot even tighter.
I swear, if my stomach kept knotting like this, I’d have to hop the first ambulance I saw to hospital. Or you know, I’d have to start trusting
it and realize I was now very much in harm’s way.
The Count started to lead us through the massive set of doors at the front of the palace. And I’ll grant this place one thing – it really was a palace. Though I could see it was run down in places, obviously Count Driscoll was rich enough that he was giving it the loving TLC it so
There was a reason most so-called noble blooded families in modern times got rid of their family estates – castles cost a frigging fortune to keep
maintained. You think a simple weather-board home is expensive and will drain your cash quicker than an arterial wound. Try a palace with 100
I couldn’t quite tell if this place had 100 rooms, but as I strained my neck once we reached the threshold of the huge doors, tilting my head up,
I saw it was at least six stories tall.
I’d read up about it – of course I’d read up out about it. I was Audrey damn Diamond,
it was my freaking job to bring some much-needed history to these shenanigans.
This castle had been built somewhere in the 1700s. It had been added onto since. Back in the 1700s, it’d been a stronghold, and that told me one
thing. Strongholds tended to have very good dungeons. For some reason, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining one such dungeon now. As if this
Jake continued to manage small chat with the Count as he led us through the opulent atrium.
With the amount of craning my neck was doing, I’d either end up in the hospital by the end of tonight, or, you know, dead – because a knot of nerves
was forming in my stomach, and this specific knot never lied. It was the one that warned me I was about to get into a situation I couldn’t
Maybe Jake could somehow pick up on my nerves – or my growing indecision – because he suddenly flattened a hand on my back. He leaned in close.
“You look a little peaky. You okay?”
I simply clenched my teeth – or maybe I bared them – and I smiled back at him.
Things became a little bit of a blur as the Count led us through the rest of the castle until we finally reached the dining room.
Things should not have become a blur. I should’ve been paying attention to the place with all of my combined senses.
It wasn’t just the knowledge that Jake’s extremely dubious plan was bound to fail. It was because this was a frigging ancient castle, and the historian
in me should be jumping up and down and enjoying every single second of this.
Instead… God, I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that something awful was about to happen.
The next thing I knew, we were sitting down at the world’s largest frigging table as Jake engaged in some seriously pointed chit chat. “I heard
the throne room in this castle is to die for. Built by a famous architect from medieval times or something, right?” Jake tried, his lips pulling
back into a smile.
If I was Driscoll, I’d recede at that smile. Either Driscoll didn’t have an ounce of sense, or he was the kind of man who always kept his cards
close to his chest. And judging by the sheer sense of greed I got from him, it was the latter.
Seated at the head of the table, his Prussian blue uniform – or whatever you could call it – looked splendid under the strong chandelier light
above us. He shrugged his shoulders. “Indeed. The same man who designed the dungeons,” he added with another shrug. “I can show them to you
after dinner – if you’d like.”
Jake chuckled. “Sounds fantastic. My colleague here has a real thing for dungeons,” he added.
I have a real thing for dungeons? It made me sound like a sadist or a dominatrix. Which was completely off the mark. Because if there was one person
who was obviously enjoying bringing pain to others, it was Jake frigging Grimsby.
I’d changed my mind completely about the man. He wasn’t charming – he was just a bastard. Through and through.
My mind turned cartwheels during the dinner – because I couldn’t remember a thing. Not from the inane conversation, down to the sumptuous food.
My head was otherwise engaged. It was running through simulation after simulation, and all of them told me this would not end well.
During the entire conversation, Driscoll kept looking at me. If I was an idiot, and if this hadn’t been my first mission, I might fool myself into
thinking he had genuine interest in me. That wasn’t to say that the specific flicker in his eye didn’t show interest. It was simply to say
that he didn’t fancy me – as anything other than something to be caught, that was.
By the end of it all, I had such a terrible stomachache from nerves, I kept clutching my belly as if it were trying to jump out of my dress.
You’d think Jake would be kind on me, end the dinner, and take me back to my hotel room.
Jake Grimsby was not a kind man. Plus, he was currently in his element.
From the exact expression playing over his handsome features – not, of course, that I recognized them as handsome anymore – he thought the Count
was playing right into his hand.
From the exact expression Driscoll was showing, however, he was playing into his own hand.
We finally reached the throne room.
If the hallway leading up to it was anything to go by, then the throne room itself would look just as fancy as a frigging Faberge egg. I don’t
think I’ve seen architecture this complex since I’d visited some of the Moorish palaces in Spain. Every single part of the hallway was decorated.
From the mural on the ceiling above, to the veneer paneling with inlaid gemstones.
I was surprised that when the government sold this place, it hadn’t stripped this hallway bare for valuable resources. Or maybe it had, and maybe
the Count had used his considerable wallet to return it to its previous glorious state.
It was damn clear by now that Count Driscoll was into pageantry. You didn’t put on a frigging Prussian blue uniform that made you look as if you
were from the American Civil War if you didn’t like to put on a show. That being said, he was even more over the top as he approached the two
enormous doors that led into the throne room. There was such a measured quality to the way he was walking – such a tilt to his head, almost
as if he were about to wander into a holy shrine.
He rested both hands on what looked like actual solid gold frigging handles, then turned to us. Specifically, he turned to me.
“Can you take my arm, my dear?” he asked.
Unless he wanted me to rip that frigging arm out of his shoulder, I did not care to take his arm.
Jake cleared his throat. He obviously caught the less-than-amused expression that was crumpling my face. “If I’m right, it’s tradition, isn’t it?”
Jake offered quickly.
The Count nodded. “That it is. A very old and very important tradition of my family,” he said, emphasizing the word family, his usually cosmopolitan
accent suddenly dropping.
“The Mataovan Royal Family always recognized the importance of women,” he said, and though I knew he wanted to, his gaze didn’t linger on my figure.
His smile, however, did linger. If you could call it a smile. It had precisely the same quality of a lion getting ready to wrap its jaw around
a poor little gazelle’s neck.
I frowned. “I see, but why should I take your arm again?”
I could see Jake looking at me out of the corner of my eye. The exact expression he was shooting me was the one you’d shoot somebody if they were
going off the reservation and they’d forgotten their role in a critical mission. Which was precisely what I was doing. I was just here to shut
up, distract the Count, and give us an opportunity to set a trap. And yet here I was, ignoring everything as I frowned pointedly up at the
This caused him to laugh. One of those controlled, melodic laughs people use when they’re pretending they have good cheer, but, in reality, what
they find amusing is not the situation, but your stupidity.
“It was tradition in my family that the king and queen would always enter the throne room together. But considering there are no king and queen,
please amuse me. It is the tradition of my family that the riches of this palace should be enjoyed by man and woman alike.”
I controlled my natural urge to snort at him. It was hellishly hard. Tradition of the Royal Family,, ha? Judging by the look in his eyes, he just
wanted me to fall into line. I very much doubted a man like Count Driscoll actually respected women. Men like Count Driscoll thought women
were objects. Or maybe pets was a more accurate term. Objects never complained when you picked them up and did whatever you wanted with them.
Pets, on the other hand, could be trained to do as you pleased as long as you showed them who was boss.
Shooting Jake the kind of stare that top told him I would make him pay for this later, I finally stepped forward, took Count Driscoll’s irritatingly
firm and strong arm, and let him lead me into the throne room. As the massive doors creaked open and revealed the sumptuous room, it would’ve
been legitimate for me to lose my breath. It was lovely in every way. It was huge with a domed ceiling. Though there were incredibly detailed
murals in the hallway ceiling outside. In here, they were on another level. They looked like the frigging Sistine Chapel. I was in danger of
breaking my neck as I strained it to stare right up at them.
Now Count Driscoll had me exactly where he wanted me, he let out another low chuckle. If I was on my game, I’d realize how much of an edge it had
to it. “Ah, finally something to impress you, ha?” the Count asked.
Though all the historian-side of me wanted to do was sink into this glorious scene, the sassy side of me could not let a comment like that slip.
I finally controlled myself, tilted my head down, and looked at him as I arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize you’d been paying that much attention
to me tonight, Count.”
It was his turn to arch another eyebrow. “The welfare of my guests is always my number-one priority. Plus, tonight was meant to be an apology,
and until now, I had worried that the experience hadn’t been… impressive enough.”
Was it just me, or did his voice due something entirely confusing on the word impressive? Though I was usually the kind of girl who had good enough
emotional understanding to understand someone’s subtext, right now, whatever the Count was truly thinking was lost on me.
He led me into the center of the room, then he let go of my arm – but not after patting it tenderly. It was the kind of tender pat that made me
want to break his fingers just to find out the exact sound they’d make when they snapped.
But sadistic me aside, I actually had a job to do. A fact I was reminded of as Jake took a step beside me, shoved his hands into his pockets, and
licked his lips.
It made him look as if he was a family dog considering the chow bowl, and not a seasoned spy who was, presumably, meant to keep his ulterior motives
The Count switched his attention to Jake. “I take it you’re impressed? As you already pointed out, the architect who completed this palace was
renowned at the time. There’s nothing else like it in Central Europe.”
Jake tugged his hand head down and grinned. “It’s quite a sight. What’s that, though?” he asked as he pointed over to a pedestal on the opposite
side of the room. It had an exceedingly fancy-looking vase on top. One of those massive ornate, goldplated affairs that looks as if it’s worth
far more than you will ever earn. It also looked frigging fragile. And though a part of me jumped at the prospect of seeing such a rare and
beautiful object, the rest of me was sane enough to appreciate that in my current nervous state, I’d probably just stumble and break it.
Plus, I didn’t want to interrupt Jake. This was the entire point of the missions. Sure enough, as the Count walked over to it, I saw Jake shove
a hand into his pocket. I swore I practically heard the faint click of him snatching hold of one of the microphone devices from his pocket.
Jake engaged the Count in inane chit chat, then, when the Count turned away, in a very smooth move, Jake let the microphone drop into the vase.
He’d obviously covered it in a piece of tissue or foam or some other soft, sound-absorbing substance, because there wasn’t a resonant whack
as the device struck the base of the China vase.
So… this was it, ha? We’d done what we’d intended to do, I began to think before stopping myself as reality struck me.
The Count strode over to me, a specific smile on his lips. I reminded myself that we hadn’t found jack. So what? This might be a nice, fancy throne
room, and technically if you were going to keep your treasure in a castle like this, a room as nice and secure as this would be where you would
keep it. But I knew how Theodore Grimsby had thought, and my assessment of this situation had not changed any. It would be highly out of character
for Theodore to have secreted the next clue in this room. He would have had to gain access to it, for one.
Speaking of which, access was a problem germane to this entire situation. If Jake was nominally right, and the next clue was in this castle, then
how and when would Theodore have put it here? Theodore was a complex burger, to be sure, but he hadn’t been Harold Houdini. His potential for
access to this building would have constrained where he could hide anything.
Jake, however, obviously thought that his role in this was over and the cat was virtually in the bag.
Though he engaged the Count in conversation, it wasn’t nearly as pointed as it had been before.
I found my head tilting up as I stared at that mural once more. It was different to the one out in the corridor. Which was unusual. It wasn’t just
the motifs – it was the painter. It took me a while, but I finally appreciated that this one looked as if it was much newer. Though I could
tell that someone had gone to a lot of effort in trying to age the paints to marry it to the one out in the corridor, it wasn’t quite right,
and you could see that it had been artificially weathered.
Which… meant what, exactly?
Judging by the fact my stomach suddenly tightened, it had to mean something.
I heard soft footsteps as the Count walked over to me. “Though that mural is indeed one of the finer points of this room, there’s more to see,”
the Count said, his voice pointed.
I didn’t need to see how close he was standing to appreciate that that comment was entirely directed at me. What he meant was that I should be
looking at him, not the mural, and with another frown, I finally reneged, tugged my head down, and offered him a small smile. “Who did you
get to do the mural, anyway?” I found myself asking.
He stiffened slightly. Then he smiled. “So you are an historian, are you?” he asked. Though the question was pointed, his tone wasn’t. It didn’t
suddenly send a thrill of nerves dancing up my spine as I appreciated that the Count was onto us and that he knew Jake’s story was bullshit.
“You’re very skilled if you can tell from simply looking from here that the mural is a new addition. Well, at least an appropriate recreation of
the old mural that once adorned this roof.”
“What happened to the old one?”
“Back when the government still owned this palace,” he said, his voice exceedingly unkind when it came to saying the word government, “they did
not look after it,” he said gravely. “We had great storms one year, and unfortunately, water came in off the roof and damaged the ceiling in
the throne room. Hence, it had to be repainted.”
I found myself nodding.
It was a deep nod. A knowing one, two, though I hid just how knowing it was from the Count as he shrugged forward, indicating that our visit of
the throne room was finally over.
I kept my smile to myself as he walked us back out into the hallway, then turned with exactly the same pageantry and shut the door once more.
This time, he did not ask me to take his arm. Once was enough, apparently.
He led us back to a drawing room for coffee and mints.
The entire time, I let my mind do its thing. And it did do its thing. It told me that maybe Jake was right, after all. Maybe the next treasure
really was in this castle.
Why was I so confident of that fact? I could bet Theodore Grimsby had had a hand in painting that mural. It made sense. The timeline made sense,
too. That was about when Theodore had been setting his clues throughout Europe. Plus, it would answer my question about how Theodore would
have gained access to the palace.
Though I hadn’t heard that Theodore Grimsby had unparalleled art skills – the kind you would require to fix a mural like the one in the throne
room – I imagined he’d found another way to get himself on the work team.
I was onto something. And that?
Was all that mattered.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Because maybe I was forgetting the fact that whilst I was onto something, so was the Count. The whole night he looked at me,
and if I’d been on the ball, I would’ve appreciated that I didn’t quite like those looks.
But it was too late now, wasn’t it?
“Goddammit, Audrey, why did you this to me? Ha?” I spat my words out with passion. Because, goddammit, I was pretty frigging passionate right now.
I wasn’t, however, talking to the real Audrey Diamond. I was instead walking through her hotel room. I managed to get into it because security
around these parts is pretty frigging lax. Though sometimes Eastern European countries could be a little laissez-faire about security, considering
the bullshit history they’d had to put up with, this was different.
It was almost as if someone had set this hotel up to make it specifically easy to spy on people.
You sometimes got that in your less-than-savory-dictatorship countries. Places where spying on the general public was seen more as an innocent
past time, and to be expected. Maratova, if you believed the news about it, had been attempting to clean up its act ever since they got rid
of their Royal family.
This was not cleaning up their act. And it made me frown as I continued to sort through Audrey’s stuff.
I’d been right earlier – and the idiot Audrey had allowed Jake to buy clothes for her. It meant two things – he’d brought her here without giving
her time to pack, and he had her wrapped around his little finger.
At the thought that anyone could have Audrey frigging Diamond wrapped around their little finger, I should just laugh my ass off and tell everyone
that couldn’t happen.
But I’d seen her, appreciated what she’d been wearing, and, more than anything, seen her arm wrapped around my brother’s.
“Goddammit,” I spat for what felt like the fiftieth time. I stood there for a while, trying to deal with my anger, then I reminded myself swiftly
that I didn’t have the time.
Though I hadn’t wanted to leave Audrey in that castle with Count frigging Driscoll, I hadn’t had any other options.
So as soon as I’d seen her disappear into the courtyard with my brother, I’d reluctantly pried myself away and brought myself here.
Now I shifted through her stuff again.
What was I looking for? Her notebook. Her brochures. Her maps. Her frigging brain. The Audrey I knew – the Audrey who would’ve done her research
and tried to independently figure out from my brother what was going on here – would definitely have jotted her ideas down somewhere.
It took me ages, but finally I found a little notebook. Inside was a folded-up plane ticket, a couple of brochures, and, importantly, hastily scribbled
“Finally,” I said, brandishing it as if it was King Arthur’s sword.
I started to flick through it, meticulously pulling out her carefully folded brochures and setting them aside, making a mental note of which pages
I’d pulled them from.
I had to appreciate that Audrey had an extremely good eye. She’d know if I left anything out of place. Then again, I had every intention of dragging
her back to England the next time I saw her.
… Or did I? Because if I had every intention of doing that, why was I currently grabbing up my phone and taking footage of her notes for
later? As I was taking footage of her notes for later, that would suggest that there would be a later, wouldn’t it? That would suggest that
I fully intended to use said notes to find said treasure.
I paused for a little as I let that thought settle in. It did things to my stomach. Nasty things. The kind of things that made me wonder if I was
about to throw up. Because I’d been here and I’d done this, hadn’t I?
“Yeah, you bastard – you’ve been hear and you’ve done this. So put down the frigging book, find Audrey, and end this already.”
I didn’t put down the book immediately. I finished taking footage of it. Only then did I pocket it as I told myself it would simply be for the
agency, in case they wanted to track down the treasure.
Then? Though I could have – probably should have – gone back to my own room, I sat down in the chair near Audrey’s bed, and I waited. I turned
the lights off, I pressed my hand into my lap, and I frigging waited.
Just when fear started to pick up in my stomach and pluck across my back – a fear that told me that the bastard Count Driscoll had done something
to her – I heard the grate of a key in the lock. It was Audrey. She shared two mumbled words with someone – obviously my brother – and strode
into the room.
The curtains were open slightly, and it allowed a little light to spread into the room – enough that Audrey obviously didn’t need to turn on the
main lights to see by. But then, just as obviously, it wasn’t enough to see me by – because Audrey Diamond hadn’t screamed and run for the
My stomach did all sorts of things as I saw her. And no, it wasn’t at the creepy fact that I was watching her but she couldn’t see me. The reason
my stomach was doing all of these things was that it was Audrey. My Audrey. Yeah
– I didn’t have the right to call her my Audrey – but I couldn’t stop my brain from doing that. At the sight of her, it brought up so many
unfinished memories. From Bavaria to Cuba – there was a lot I’d gone through with a certain Miss Audrey Diamond. And as my stomach pitched
in a certain way, I realized there was more I’d like to go through, too. But first things first.
Audrey began to undress. She was a quick hand at it, too, and she had unzipped the back of her dress before I cleared my throat.
As soon as I did, she yelped. It wasn’t loud enough that the entire hotel would be able to hear, but it was close.
“I really wouldn’t scream too loudly, Audrey, because you have no damn right,” I said, suddenly incapable of finishing my sentence. The rest of
it – the rest of everything I wanted to say to her became trapped in my throat as if I’d stupidly tried to swallow the whole frigging world.
There was a pause. The kind of pause somebody gives when they realize the full enormity of the situation. I may not be a criminal, but in Audrey’s
mind right now, I was clearly worse. “James?” she asked, her voice twisting. I swear
her vocal cords suddenly became dancers, because the way they contorted made me think of a ballerina trying to twist out of reach.
“Yeah, James,” I managed, throat hellishly raspy. It made me sound as if I’d gone on a whiskey bender for a week.
If I had the hope of controlling anything right now – let alone my voice – that hope was slim as hell. Because at the sight of Audrey… it
all came back. All the things I hadn’t had a chance to say to her since the train trip. All the things I’d secretly thought about Audrey since
the day I met her, but all the things I’d never been brave enough to say.
“I can explain,” she said, voice climbing until it was high pitched and strained.
“I’m sure you can,” I managed through clenched teeth. “But I’m sure I’m not going to like your excuse,” I said, emphasizing the word excuse with
a puff of air. “Because it’ll just be an excuse, won’t it, Audrey? Because there can be no possible valid reason for you to be here, with my
brother, doing this.”
I could see Audrey through that shaft of light making it in through the curtains.
Her face looked as if it fell – looked like it was a prisoner someone had just pushed off a cliff. “I’m not with him, James,” she emphasized, her voice doing that same thing as it appeared like a dancer on the word with. “I mean, I’m not with with him,” she tried to correct immediately.
I hadn’t seen the side of Audrey in a while. But she was back, and even though the room was dark, I could see that her cheeks were touching with
I want to tell you that my expression didn’t change at her admission. I want to tell you that I hadn’t been freaking out ever since I’d found out
Audrey was here with my brother that she’d suddenly fallen for him. But that would be a lie. Because at her vehement admission that she wasn’t
with my brother, yeah, I felt relief.
But Audrey was still in this country, and I wouldn’t let that relief sink in until she was safely back home.
I finally stood.
Her eyes watched my form as it was presumably illuminated by the light making it in through the crack in the curtains.
I swore Audrey wouldn’t have looked away even if Elvis suddenly appeared behind her.
“I’ve already booked your ticket home,” I said. “Or at least, Sandy has.”
“I… Just. I—”
“You didn't know what you were doing? You had a stroke and lost all sense of reality? You forgot that he’s my frigging brother and he is a complete
and utter psychopath?” I said, and though my tone had been controlled and sarcastic before, now it became as dark as hell.
Audrey took a steeling breath, and this time it was enough to control her nerves so she didn’t shake.
“It wasn’t like that, James. He just… he appeared at my door one day. And he…”
“Gave you an offer you couldn’t refuse?” I asked through clenched teeth.
She looked away from me, then she looked back sharply nodded. “Yes, he did.”
“I thought you were smarter than that, Audrey? I thought you couldn’t be bought,” I added, tone becoming constricted once more.
Anger flared in her gaze at this. Fair enough, I’d just called her cheap. The smart me – the me that had traveled sufficiently with Audrey Diamond
to realize that she was the last person on earth you wanted to insult like this – should have picked up the force of her expression and backed
the hell down. The smart me, however, had been left back in England. All that remained now was the emotional idiot who couldn’t see past his
own beating heart.
“He knew I’d been looking into it, okay? I wasn’t careful. He saw my search history. And then… yeah, he gave me an offer I couldn’t say
no to,” she started off hard and strong, but she became quiet toward the end.
My eyebrows narrowed. “What do you mean he saw your search history?”
She made a face – the face Audrey Diamond always made when she was trying to pretend she hadn’t done something stupid. She brought up a hand and
started to scratch behind her ear. “I know it was stupid, James. I know I shouldn’t have anything to do with these treasures considering all
the crap we’ve been through. But… at the same time, they’re like a puzzle, I hate abandoning puzzles. Seriously, my parents were stupid enough to give me this epic puzzle as a kid, and I lost a piece. I cried and screamed
when they tried to pack it off the kitchen table. I left it there for a good six months until I found that piece and I managed to finish it.”
I looked at her impassively. I did not let on that that story about summed up Audrey as best as anything could. I shook my head. “Great tale, Audrey
– but I’ll be honest—”
“You don’t care,” she said, her shoulders dropping.
It drew attention to the fact that her dress was half undone. Though the dress my brother bought Audrey very much did not suit her – I was starting
to appreciate one thing did suit Audrey. Being naked. Yeah, okay, that was a prickish thing to say. My point was there something very alluring
about the shape of Audrey’s naked shoulders as the fabric fell down a little more, framing her considerable bust.
If she was aware of the fact gravity was slowly undressing her, she didn’t care.
“I remembered that one of your dad’s postcards showed an island. I didn’t have access to the picture, but I remembered that the island had looked
as if it had a city on it, and it hadn’t been tropical in any way. I started to do searches, until I found Maratova.”
I pressed my lips in hard. “And during all of this, did you forget that my brother would be watching your search history? Did you forget what we
went through on that train?”
She wouldn’t look at me now. She stared steadfastly to the side, and she breathed so hard, her dress fell down another few centimeters. But this
time I didn’t even notice her shapely shoulders. All I cared about was the pained look in her eyes. It told me that Audrey Diamond hadn’t completely
lost her heart. It was still buried in there somewhere. She’d only been stupid enough to make the mistake of going after the treasure, no matter
the costs. And as the rational side of my brain was pointing out, I couldn’t exactly blame her for that – because most of my life, I’d done
the same thing.
She let out a tense breath and looked at me. Her gaze was vulnerable – easily the most vulnerable I’d ever seen her use. “I’m sorry, James. It
was stupid – but with him on my doorstep, I could hardly tell him no.”
This elicited a deep snort from me. “You could have – trust me. I tell my brother to fuck off all the time,” I said bitterly.
She looked up at me sharply. She had that knowing gaze that told me she knew me better than I knew myself. She also arched an eyebrow. “That’s
a little ironic, coming from you, isn’t it? Your brother has you wrapped around his finger. He always has. And now he has me wrapped around
his finger, too.”
I bit back on my anger at that statement. I wanted to keep pushing her – I wanted to keep pointing out that she should have tried harder to shove
him off her doorstep, lock her door, and never have anything to do with my wretched brother again.
Then I appreciated what she was saying. Because she was uncomfortably right. My brother did have the ability to wrap anyone around his little finger.
It was a little thing called money and influence. Working for the shady government agency that he did, there was little he couldn’t do.
So I found myself pulling my gaze to the side and staring at the gap through the curtains to the city beyond. Audrey let out a breath. It was a
frustrated breath. The kind of breath I’d grown so used to in her presence. It was the sigh that she would use when she was on the cusp of
I frowned. “What?”
“You said you brought me that ticket?” She looked up hopefully.
“Then let’s go. Maybe we can get out of here before your brother realizes I’m gone,” she began. Then she winced in pain. “No – I can’t do that
My stomach sank.
She looked at me sharply. “Before you think that’s me falling for your brother – it isn’t. If there’s one thing this idiotic mission has taught
me, it’s that Jake Grimsby isn’t smart – she’s an idiot with money.”
This made me snort. It felt good, too – it was a belly-rattling blast that let out a great deal of my tension and allowed me to refocus the rational
side of my mind for the first time since the conversation began. “Never a truer statement was said. But what are you talking about? What kind
of trouble has he gotten himself in?” I added darkly.
“He thinks the next treasure is in the palace. We met that Count at some café, then he invited us to the palace for dinner tonight. Jake is convinced
that the treasure is in the throne room – and he managed to get the Count to show it to us. He left these,” Audrey shrugged, her dress falling
a little further down her shoulders until her smooth skin shone under the moonlight, “James Bond device thingies all through the palace. He
says it will enable him to sneak in in the dead of night and steal the treasure right out from underneath the Count’s nose. It’s bullshit,”
she added before I could do the same.
Our gazes met.
And I felt it once more. The Audrey Diamond who’d first come to my attention in Huddleston. The Audrey Diamond who’d proved to have skills I would
never have been able to predict.
The Audrey Diamond who always seemed to know what to do. And the Audrey Diamond who was now only a few meters away, barely dressed, and with a
knowing look that told me no one would ever know me like she did.
So excuse me if my stomach kicked and nerves spread through it like wildfire.
Audrey did not, however, suddenly throw herself at me. What she did was tilt her head back, undo her hair, and muss it over her shoulders. She
pushed her fingers against her scalp and winced. Then she winced even harder as she peered out between the crack in the curtains. “We can’t
just leave him. The Count is onto him – for sure. And if Jake is stupid enough to head back to the palace, he’s just going to get himself trapped.
He seems to be under the impression that that won’t matter – that even if he ends up in a Maratovan in prison, the British Government will
get him out. But I’m not so sure.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate what they’d do to release them,” I said, hating to be the voice of reason.
She looked at me sharply. “What I mean is I’m not so sure he’d ever end up in prison. The Count….” She shook her head and shuddered.
“Is a murderous bastard who’d into human trafficking,” I said sharply.
She paled. “Excuse me? Jake didn’t tell me that.”
“Either he doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care. I assume it’s the latter. Judging by how idiotic my brother becomes around this treasure, I doubt
he did his full homework on this. I assume, by what you’re telling me, that he thought it would be an easy and simple snatch-and-grab. Where
is he now, anyway?”
“In his room. Or at least I hope he’s still in his room. I managed to convince him on the way back here that we shouldn’t try heading after the
treasure tonight. But Jake—”
“Is a rich idiot,” I finished her sentence. I clamped a hand on my mouth and tried to think.
Though all I wanted to do was take Audrey back to England, somewhere deep within me was still a tiny scrap of loyalty for my brother. It wasn’t
because I liked him – it was because he was my flesh and blood. And it was because, even though I had conflicted feelings around my father,
if he were here, I know he would demand one thing. Even if I could never find his treasure and do what he promised my late mother I would do
– he would demand that I keep Jake safe.
“Oh, fuck it,” I said as I sighed hard.
Audrey’s eyes flashed as they settled on me. “You’re gonna go after him and stop him, aren’t you? I really don’t think he’s going to be pleased
to see you.”
I snorted. “I can guarantee you 150 percent that he’s not going to be pleased to see me. But he can get screwed.”
“What exactly are you going to do? Kidnap him and take him back to England?”
“I was thinking more punch him, actually.”
She rolled her eyes.
Me? I smiled.
Because we were back together.
… Well, as a team. But that’s all that mattered… right?
“Look, first things first, I’ve got to confirm just where my idiotic brother is. Which one is his room?” I asked as I shrugged toward the door. I was lying to Audrey. No, I hadn’t just listened to her story and decided that we were going to make a play for the treasure. The reason I was lying to Audrey was that this was not the first thing I wanted to do. The first thing I wanted to do was push over to her, wrap my arms around her shoulders, and draw her in close.
Now I’d confirmed everything was technically fine, my body wanted release.
But considering we really didn’t have that kind of relationship, yet, I settled for arching my neck toward the door.
Audrey took a shuffling step toward me, and practically fell over the hem of her dress. It yanked the unseemly thing down a half inch. And a half inch was all that was needed to reveal her considerable cleavage in full.
“Shit,” she spat as she tried to cover herself with her arms.
Though I could have just stood there, staring like a 14-year-old, I cleared my throat politely and looked away. “Maybe the first thing we should do is change your clothes. I mean you should change your clothes. You don’t need any help. You’re a functioning adult. Now I’m going to go over here,” I said, sounding about as awkward as I felt as I cleared my throat, my cheeks touching with red.
“Jesus, James, your acting as if you actually want to see me naked,” she muttered. Then, it was as if she realized what she’d just said, and I heard her take a squeak of a splutter.
Though the gentlemen inside me told me to keep my back turned to her, the rest of me made me turn over my shoulder and glance her way just to see her reaction. Sure enough, her cheeks were red. But as she caught sight of me peeping, her face stiffened like setting glue. “Do you mind, you perv?”
I turned away sharply and cleared my throat. “I am not a perv, I’ll have you know.”
“Yeah, I get it; you can have any woman you want. But just turn away and offer me a little decency,” she said, but as she spoke, her voice tightened as if she was attempting something strenuous. I could hear the sound of her tugging on her dress, and a few short seconds later, she swore bitterly.
“I—” I began.
“If you’re about to make some wisecrack about me being incapable of dressing myself, despite the fact I’m meant to be a functioning adult, don’t,” she snarls. “But get over here,” she added immediately afterward.
I shouldn’t have to point out that this was not the first time I’d seen a lady undress. I mean, granted, the last few months of my life since I’d met Audrey had been distracting and busy, but I was still what the modern world would call a player.
So why did my stomach all but fall out at that offer?
I sounded like a prepubescent boy being offered his first kiss.
“It’s stuck, James. When I stepped on it, I think I broke it. I can’t do it. I need a hand,” she explained.
My heart sank, or at least something sank as I turned around and walked toward her.
Despite the fact she was standing just in the slice of light making it in through the window, and despite the fact that framed her bust, I did not let my gaze slip. I did clear my throat, though, sounding like a proper Englishman – or at least someone pretending he was one. I shifted around her, found the zip, and promptly realized the thing really was broken.
“Put me out of my misery, already, and yank the damn thing off,” she grumbled. “I mean don’t yank it off. I don’t want you to rip it off me or anything,” she added, and with every word, her voice became tighter and tighter.
Hell, I could practically feel her flush as I settled a hand on her shoulder and tried to yank at the zip. But it wouldn’t work.
“Sorry, Audrey, this thing isn’t coming off. Unless I cut it off,” I added.
“Sounds okay to me. This is a piece of crap your equally crappy brother gave me. I don’t give a single hoot what happens to it. Cut the damn thing off and burn it. You have pocket knife on you, Mr. Adventure, don’t you?”
I reached my pocket and pulled out my pocket knife. I flicked it, settled my hand a little further down her shoulder, and stopped. I stopped, because Audrey arched her back in a very specific way. Toward me. Toward my hand, specifically.
Get a hold of yourself, man, I thought sharply. You have a job to do. And it’s not that.
I swore Audrey was holding her breath. It wasn’t just the specific tension of her muscles as she held herself there, practically poised on the spot, like a doll. It was in the soft flesh of her arm and back and neck as they became pink with warmth.
… Audrey was attracted to me, right? That wasn’t just the asshole me talking – the guy who knew he was hot, and often capitalized on that fact. It was the real me – the good me. The guy I never usually showed, but the side Audrey, nonetheless, had a real talent for revealing.
Getting back to my main point. I wasn’t making this up. The way she was leaning into me, the heat radiating off her flesh, the tension in her shoulders as she held onto her breath. It could only mean one thing, right?
Audrey Diamond was the first woman in my life who’d stuck around for more than fun, the first woman in my life who seemingly give a shit about me. And Audrey cared. Audrey cared enough to throw herself off a frigging balcony. She cared enough to track me down no matter where I was around the world. And maybe, just maybe this wasn’t my damn nervous system overreacting at the touch of her warm, inviting flesh, but there was something genuine going on here.
“James?” she asked. Her voice was husky. There was no way around that fact. It was deep, penetrating, the kind of breathy, soft tones that are only meant to be heard when you’re close enough to someone to whisper right into their ears.
My body latched onto them, heat shifting down through my chest, pushing into my legs, and racing up into my jaw. The kind of heat that demands a very certain kind of release.
“… James?” she asked again, using that same damn voice.
I gave in. Maybe I gave up. Or maybe I did neither. Maybe I went with the moment, because deep down, as an actuary, I knew to take hold of an opportunity when it came.
“Aud,” I said, using the same husky tone I,” I began, intending to outright tell her I was attracted to her. But that would be when there was a goddamn knock on her door.
She was so surprised that she gave a yelp, and this one carried.
I heard someone rattling at her door. “Ma’am, are you okay?” a deep voice asked.
I didn’t recognize the voice, meaning it wasn’t my brother. But I did recognize the tone. For some reason, it set alarm bells off in my head. “Do you know who the hell that is?” I whispered close to Audrey’s ear.
She turned over her shoulder and shook her head. “Room service, maybe?”
“Get them out of here,” I said, about to say we had unfinished business. I fortunately stopped myself in time. “Okay, hold on,” Audrey called out loud. Then she flopped a hand at me, but I was already in the process of running toward the bathroom. Fortunately my brother obviously hadn’t scrimped on expenses and had gotten Audrey a room with a large en-suite. I hid in it now, not closing the door fully in case I had to open it in a hurry. With my thumb pressed up against the door jamb, I peered around it just as Audrey cleared her throat and went to open the door. Which would be when she remembered that she was only half wearing her dress. Fortunately there was a dressing gown thrown over a hook on the back of her door. She grabbed it, chucked it on, tied it around her middle, and opened the door.
I couldn’t see who was in the doorway from here, but by George did I pare back all my other senses. I somehow managed to still my pounding heart so it couldn’t reverberate out and obscure the deep rumble of the guy.
“It’s a little late, isn’t it?” Audrey said politely, her voice wavering with that specific tone that told me she was trying to seem unflappable but she was coming across as highly strung instead.
The guy chuckled. For some reason, that chuckle made me want to jump out of hiding and slam my fist against the damn brute’s jaw. I settled for pressing even closer to the door, every single one of my joints creaking in anticipation.
But if I thought a fight was going to happen, I was wrong.
“The Count is an eccentric and generous man,” the guy informed Audrey, really letting his voice rattle out on the word generous. “Please accept this gift. If you find it useful, please contact the Count.” With that opaque statement, the guy turned and left without a good bye.
Audrey slowly closed the door unlocked it. By the time she turned around, I was already out of the en-suite, practically bounding like a hurrying dog. “What the hell is it?” I demanded as I reached her.
She shrugged her shoulders and handed a small, well-wrapped box to me.
It might’ve been her gift, but that didn’t stop me from snatching it off her and tearing through the paper as if I was a child who’d received a gift on Christmas day. The paper fell around my shoes as I revealed a jewelry box.
Audrey blanched, and I shot her a specific look. “What kind of impression did you make on Count Driscoll?”
“I barely talked to the brute. He’s such a skeeze.”
“You’re always charming, even if you try not to be,” I found myself saying, and once the words were out, it was too late to retract them. I didn’t even bother as, settling my nerves in my stomach, I opened the box. You’d think I wouldn’t have to settle my nerves in my stomach. After all, the ring I assumed would be in here wasn’t for me. Audrey wasn’t proposing or anything. But that would not discount the exact tension climbing my back. It was there for two very specific reasons. Count Driscoll was a lot wealthier than I was. Okay, it wasn’t as if I wasn’t well healed. With my father’s fortune and my job as a highly paid actuary/spy, I didn’t have any trouble paying the bills and having a little extra left over for $2000 bottles of champagne and sports cars. But there was me, and then there were men like Count Driscoll, who pretty much ran countries with the amount of offshore cash they had.
The other reason – the far saner reason that I was suddenly filled with tension - was that this may very well not be a present. It could be a weapon. A booby-trap of some kind. And that’s why I was being slow and methodical. I ran my thumb over the indent in the jewelry box, trying to pick up any imperfections in the fabric to suggest it had been manipulated in any way. I also paid exquisite attention to how much it weighed, judging its proportions and what must be inside as I shifted my hand up and down softly.
While I couldn’t conclude that it was the world’s smallest bomb, I asked Audrey to stand back nonetheless.
Fortunately – somehow, considering this was Audrey – she didn’t question, and she did exactly as I said.
“You don’t honestly think there’s something dodgy in there, do you?”
“This is Count Driscoll, Audrey – it could be a damn severed finger for all we know.”
“Really?” Her voice shot up like a kazoo. “That’s insane, James – tell me you’re joking.”
“Stay the hell back. Did you forget what kind of businesses he’s into?”
At that, Audrey gave me that look. The look that told me that there would be no more lip, because she was finally appreciating, yet again, the kind of serious shit she was in.
Wincing, I finally did it. I opened the box, and… it didn’t explode. Poison darts didn’t spring out from somewhere, nor was there a single bullet with a hastily inscribed threat.
Nope. What there was was a trinket. I made a face. A disgusted face. As if I was an impending bride who’d just received a carnival ring in place of a diamond one.
“Hey, give me that,” Audrey said breathlessly as she pushed in close, her bust shifting just by my arm. She snatched it off me, took a breath, and carefully grabbed up the trinket.
I narrowed my eyes at her. “Don’t fall for him, Audrey. He’s a psychopath. He is wanted by Interpol—”
“And he’s a total skeeze. I’ve already told you that. James, you don’t need to be my chaperone. I’m a big girl.”
“So why do you look so damn impressed as if your lover has given you jewelry,” I managed. I instantly regretted it once the clumsy words were out of my mouth. But regretting it wasn’t enough.
Audrey made a face. Her features squeezed tight in amusement. “As if my lover has given me jewelry? You sound like you’re some kind of prudish grandma from the seventies. Now go over there and get me my notepad. It should be in my luggage.”
I turned swiftly. I didn’t snap at her for telling me to get her notepad. I turned swiftly so she didn’t see the expression on my face which would inform her I knew exactly where her notepad was.
I made my way over to her luggage, then made half an effort to look for it. “Where is this damn thing meant to be?”
“Don’t be pathetic, James. I know you’ve looked at it,” she revealed.
I stiffened slightly.
“You were obviously in my room for some time before I returned, and you, sir, have itchy fingers. You can never stay still. You would’ve found my notebook, searched through my clothes, and tried to figure out what I was after. So pick the damn thing up and bring it over here, alright?”
I didn’t bother to reply. I did, however, go straight to her notebook, pluck it up, grab a pen from my pocket, and hand both to her.
She didn’t accept them. She fobbed them off to me with a wave. “No, you take notes. I’m going to read them out to you, got it?”
This time I couldn’t help but snort. “I’m not your secretary—”
“No, but you are in the doghouse, considering been looking through my stuff.”
I couldn’t let it drop. Aud was obviously in her element. And when Audrey Diamond was in her element, she tended to steamroll over things. Considering I’d spent a long time with her and I knew that, I should just be a good man and get out of the way. But she was forgetting something. Something she needed to be reminded of right now. “You came to this country with my brother on a death-wish mission, and I’m the one who’s in the doghouse?”
Her cheeks tightened. She made a move that was halfway between a wince and halfway between a cheeky smile. “I kind of forgot that.”
“Just make sure you don’t forget it again. Now, what the hell are you looking at and why are you so excited?” I said, pen poised over the paper as if I was a junior reporter working for some high school magazine.
“This is a famous miniature portrait, James. It would be worth a packet.”
My brow scrunched up, and goddammit if I didn’t get a little defensive again. I managed to stop myself from pointing out that I could probably afford a miniature portrait too, and instead settled for straightening my back. “And why would dear Mr. Criminal Driscoll give this to you?”
“If I’m any guess,” she said, voice trailing off as she fixed her attention on the portrait instead, “it has something to do with the papers. It was just a throwaway comment, but obviously he took it for granted.”
“Audrey, I can’t read your mind. And I would have to be able to read your mind to figure out what you’re talking about. So put me out of my misery, please.”
“Okay, okay. When we first met Count Driscoll, we were in a café, and Jake started shooting his mouth off mouth to get the Count’s attention. Specifically, he said that we were after the Verini Papers,” she said, her quick voice slowing down as she pronounced that word, as if I would have any clue what it was.
I made a suitable scrunched up face at that. “And? Is that meant to be important somehow?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, James, it is important. They’re meant to lead to one of the biggest red diamonds in the world.”
My expression changed. Anyone’s word. I also pressed my lips together and whistled, though I ensured it didn’t carry out. If Jake was still close by, the last thing I wanted to do was invite him to this party. “And that red diamond’s meant to be here in Maratova?”
Audrey shrugged. “I heard it was. This island,” she pointed to the ground with a stiff finger, her nail polish glittering in the dim light still making it in through the gap in the curtains, “was meant to be the last known location of it.”
“Hold up, Audrey. How do you even know about these papers?”
Her lips spread wide in a specific smile. The kind of smile that told me Audrey thought she was a very smart girl indeed.
I arched an eyebrow, stuck my jaw out to the side, and tapped my foot on the ground. “What have you been doing?”
“Nothing,” her voice went up high. “But… while I was searching out Maratova, I became fascinated about its history.”
“Of course you did,” I said with the kind of snort a high school bully would use on a dweeb.
“Thank you, James, but history is important. Especially when you’re trying to track down historical items of value.”
“You sound like Indiana Jones.”
“You sound like you want to be smacked in the mouth. Do you want me to get through this story or not?”
I glowered at her. “Fine, finish.”
“The Verini Papers were listed on the Wikipedia page of Maratova,” she said with a shrug. “They’re that famous. The lost red diamond is well known. All throughout Europe. It brings occasional treasure seekers here, but no one’s ever been able to find it.”
“And that miniature portrait has something to do with it?” I asked with a frown and a quick set of nerves darting through my stomach.
You see, teasing Audrey aside, if she was right, then I didn’t like this one bit. Because it meant that Count Driscoll had every intention of drawing Audrey toward him. You didn’t, after all, just give away famous, expensive miniature portraits to random women you invited to dinner on the off chance they could find famous red diamonds. You only ever gave to ensnare. At least when you were someone like Count Driscoll.
Audrey shook her head. “There’s no need to look like that, James.”
“And how exactly am I looking?”
“As if you’re going to go into full James Chase protection mode. Nothing’s happened yet.”
“I’m just a little worried that the bastard sent you this. Is there any kind of message? Does he want you to find it for him?”
“According to your brother – if he can be believed,” she said through a snarl, “we’re meant to be here looking for the Verini Papers for the Maratovan Government.”
I snorted. “Lie. Definite fucking lie.”
Audrey looked alarmed. “But that’s what he built our entire story on. He promised me it was true, too.”
“Audrey, my brother would promise you the moon if he could just get what he wanted. He has no problem in lying – that’s his job.”
Her shoulders started to sink, and I could see that her eyes were widening in true alarm. “Then we’re screwed. Presumably Driscoll has contacts in the government. They would’ve told him that we’re not here legitimately. This is a trap,” she announced.
I brought my hands up as I still held the notepad and pen. “Congratulations for growing a brain. Of course it’s a trap. Now send the damn trinket back to the Count, and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Audrey looked down at the trinket, then, taking a solid breath that pushed her chest out against her attractive dressing gown, she closed it and threw it onto the bed. It must’ve taken a hell of a lot of balls for someone like Audrey – with her amount of training in history – to chuck around an important artifact like that. But that didn’t stop me from smiling. I almost clapped a hand on her shoulder, too, but then I realized we were very much not buddies from a sports team. I cleared my throat. “So… let’s get out of here, ha?”
She looked at me. Was there something in that look? Did I see her gaze dart back to the exact position we’d been in before we’d been interrupted? Because we had been interrupted, hadn’t we? I’d been about to do something – and judging by—
Her cheeks suddenly stiffened. “Shit, your brother. We’re forgetting about your brother. We can’t leave until you Shanghai him and pull him onto a plane. And that, James, is going to be damn near impossible.”
I swore. Under my breath, as bitter as I could make it. “Which room is his?” I jammed my thumb in both directions, indicating the rooms that flanked Audrey’s.
She pointed to my left.
“All right, then. Time to pay my big brother a midnight visit,” I said, growling as I curled a hand into a fist.
I walked toward the door, and Audrey was just behind me.
I paused and turned to her. “You should probably stay here.”
“I think you’re going to have a better chance if I’m there to… soften the blow,” she said, biting her lip on the word blow.
I stiffened. “You don’t need to worry. I’m a physical match for my brother.”
She looked away.
My stomach clenched. “I’m younger than he is – faster too.”
“This isn’t a competition, James,” she said in the kind of voice that told my suddenly paranoid mind this was a competition and I’d very much lost.
So I straightened up even further. “You stay here, Audrey,” I said in a patriarchal tone that I realized too late would get her off-side.
Sure enough, she clamped her arms around her bust, jutted her chin out, and shook her head. “No, James, you stay here. I’ll bring them back to my room. It will be better that way.”
I think my cheeks were about to fall off. “How will that be better?”
“Because you’re not a guest at this hotel. If you wander around the corridors, somebody might realize that.”
“You’re not luring him back to your hotel room,” I said, once again sounding like that seventies chaperone she’d accuse me of being before.
I should probably have been a little bit more choosy about my words, though, because on the word lure, Audrey’s cheeks paled and descended as if I’d slapped her.
It was too late to retract my statement.
She blinked. It wasn’t a pretty blink. It was a pointed one that looked as if she was trying to remove her eyelashes by shaking them free with indignation. “Excuse me? Lure? What exactly is that meant to mean, James?”
I was smart enough not to answer. I brought my hands up slowly. “I just don’t like the idea of you bringing my brother back to your bedroom late at night. Okay? He might get the wrong idea.”
She snorted. “Jake Grimsby isn’t attracted to me, idiot.” With that, she opened the door and stalked through. She closed it.
“Yes, he is, idiot,” I answered, standing there and shaking my head.
My stomach clenched as I waited. It clenched because it told me that right now Jake Grimsby was inviting Audrey into his room. Right now my asshole of a brother was making a move on her. And right now—
The door opened, and I was standing so close to it that it banged me in the face.
“Ow,” I said as I jolted back.
“Don’t stand so close to the door. You knew I was going to open it,” Audrey blasted as she walked in and closed the door behind her. She looked at me.
“Where is my brother?”
“He isn’t there.”
“What do you mean? Maybe he didn’t answer. Maybe he’s asleep.”
She shook her head. “He gave me the code to get into his room. He’s not there.”
My cheeks paled. Outside, there was a sudden gust of wind. It slammed against the window. It drew my attention to it. And through the crack in the curtains, I tilted my head back until I saw the castle right at the top of the hill.
“Shit,” we both said together.
It was going to be a long night.
“Relax, Audrey, I know what I’m doing,” James said for what felt like the fiftieth time.
And, for what felt like the fiftieth time, I jammed my thumb nail in my mouth and chewed down on it so hard, it was a surprise it didn’t fracture and send shards banging through my jaw.
We’d made our way back to the castle. James’ plan was to enter the castle and find his brother before he could get captured by the Count and wind up as a rotted skeleton in the bastard’s dungeon.
By now, I’d been on enough crazy adventures with James Chase to appreciate that I had a place. James was the kind of lithe, athletic fool to jump up walls, run around with bad guys, and generally cover the action side of things while I would always stand somewhere close by, chewing my thumbnail and freaking the hell out.
That wasn’t to say that I didn’t have the ability to burst out into action when I needed to you. Just ask James when I saved him from those mercenaries in his dad’s kitchen. And hell, just ask James when I jumped from balcony to balcony in Cuba. So not the point, though. While I could occasionally dig deep, run fast, and punch hard when the situation dictated it, I rarely put my hand up for that type of crap.
But there’s a downside to being the person who has to stay behind and watch while everyone else puts themselves in danger. It’s goddamn nerve-racking.
We’d reached the side of the castle. Not the courtyard where Jake and I had entered through only several hours ago. We were far around the side, toward the cliff face, to be exact. The palace was located on one side of the island, and there was a precipitous drop down the western end. Great for protecting yourself from armies and whatnot, but damn did it make it nippy.
As I stood there and watched James walking along the top of the wall, his perfect balance ensuring the didn’t slip and tumble down to the razor-sharp rocks about 100 meters below us, I huddled into the collar of my jacket. There was a clipping, whistling breeze rushing past, and damn was it making me chilly. But if I thought being slightly cold was an issue, it was the least of my damn problems.
I watched with a serious damn knot forming in my gut as James started to size up a jump.
Maybe it hammered home the difference between Jake and him, but by the time we’d made it here, I’d already found out that James had spent most of the plane ride over here pouring over the blueprint of this palace. He’d been smart enough to figure out that Jake would probably think the treasure was inside the castle. Because that – right there – was the difference between the two brothers. Jake was arrogant. And sure, sometimes that arrogance paid off. James? Though it pained my heart to point this out, James Chase was very rarely arrogant. Even back when I’d first met him in Huddleston, I now appreciated that what I’d assumed was arrogance was something else. The proficiency of an actuary who knew not just his own skills, but other people’s.
So even though a torturous knot formed in my stomach as I watched James size up the jump, I didn’t let out a gasp as he finally pushed himself forward, launched up the wall, and managed to catch an old iron ring lodged in it.
Fortunately for James’ body and my heart, the ring didn’t give way, and James didn’t pancake on the rocks 100 meters below. Instead, he hefted himself up, controlled the sound of his voice so it didn’t echo out too far, then leapt to another ring.
If I’d never seen James’ considerable parkour skills before, I would’ve assumed this display was impossible.
As it was, I just stood there and watched as James navigated his way up the wall. It was a good 20 meters up until he reached a small retaining wall thing that looped around the side of the castle. From there, according to James’ blueprints, at least, he’d be able to follow that retaining wall around the western cliff face of the castle. 50 meters, then he’d reach the storm drain that would lead into the castle dungeons.
James had a little backpack on his back, and in it was all of the gear he’d brought with him from England and he’d managed to steal from Jake’s hotel room. There was a bunch of stuff that would help him climb and, of course, a bunch of stuff that would help him knock out unsuspecting guards and anyone else fool enough to get in his way.
As soon as James hauled himself up onto the retaining wall, he pivoted and stood. Then the bastard teetered, and just for a second, my life flashed in front of my eyes.
From the moment I saw James sitting at the dinner table in Huddleston, to the moment he saved me from those bastards who’d tried to run me off the road, to the moment back in my hotel room when he’d almost kissed me. All of that and more flashed through my mind as I gasp like someone had just stabbed me. But before I could scream, James stood straight and chuckled. “Sorry. Just joshing with you.”
I opened my mouth to scream at him until the entire city heard.
James brought up a finger and pressed it against his lips. “Don’t freak out, Audrey. I’ve got this.”
Though James was 20 meters up and I had to crane my neck to see him, and despite the fact it was the middle of the damn night, I swore I could make out his smile. Broad, deep and… caring, right? Maybe right now as James was halfway through breaking into an international human trafficker’s castle was not the right time for this touching moment, but that couldn’t stop a pleasant wave of nerves from shifting through my stomach. I even had to bring up a hand and place it over my tummy.
James remained there paused for several seconds until he finally snapped a salute, turned, kept low, and started pushing around the retaining wall.
I watched him the entire time until he was out of sight. And even when he was, I couldn’t pull myself away from him for a full five minutes.
By the time I finally managed it, I was a wreck. Because I’d been through enough ridiculous action scenarios like this to appreciate one thing. My heart was telling me this wouldn’t work. Somewhere along the line, something or someone was going to fuck up. And if my money had to be on anyone, it was on Jake. I just hoped like hell that James would be okay.
But as I walked away into the darkness, I should have been more careful with that hope.
Because it wasn’t James I should be worried about.
Far in the distance, if I’d been paying attention, I would’ve heard low, steady footfall. And it was coming my way.
It’d been a while since I’d been in a situation like this. My every-day activities around London very rarely called for me to jump around retaining walls, climb up the cliff face of European castles, and generally throw caution to the wind as I tried to save idiotic brothers.
But there was a certain aspect of this I always missed. It wasn’t just adventure. It was action. It was that thrill you get when you did something with your hands and body. When you achieved the apparently impossible because you’d spent years training your body and mind to do just that.
I’d dressed for the occasion. I’d found a nice thick woolen black turtleneck in Jake’s gear, and it was the only thing stopping me from being completely frozen by the biting wind. In any feature as exposed as this cliff face, the winds you’d get could be practically apocalyptic. Combine that with a body of cold water – like the lake all around me – and if you were unprepared, your body could become too cold to climb. Your hands could cramp up, and the next thing you know, your fingers could slide right off as you slipped into oblivion.
For now, I was okay, but I couldn’t afford to waste any time. Do that, and my idiotic brother would probably wind up tortured in the Count’s dungeons.
As soon as I thought about the bastard’s dungeons, my back stiffened.
I had absently no idea what I would face in them. Though, academically, I really didn’t expect that my brother would be down there. Yet. I had to remember the kind of man that Count Driscoll was. Interpol wanted him for people trafficking. Over the years, Count Driscoll had had many enemies that had simply disappeared. Wasn’t there every possibility that – in keeping with his screwed up royal past – the bastard had buried his foes in his dungeon? Count Driscoll fancied himself as a king in hiding. A rightful ruler of this country who’d been pushed to the wayside. And kings can get rid of their subjects however they so please.
I tried to push all those grisly thoughts from my mind as I continued to clamber along the retaining wall. I had to be damn careful. No torches, no lights at all. I simply had to navigate with a combination of my excellent night vision and the light coming in off the moon above. Fortunately, it was a relatively cloud-free night, meaning that the moonlight was reflected on the lake. It was just enough for me to see by, just enough that I would always pause before putting my foot into a section of wall that had crumbled away.
The more I climbed, the more I thought of two things. Getting this done, and getting Audrey back to London.
And once we were in London…
That particular thought kept banging around my head, kind of like a marble in a tin can.
I couldn’t deny the moment we’d had back in her hotel room.
I didn’t want to, either. I had a thing for Audrey, didn’t I? No, scratch that. I’d had a thing for Audrey since I’d met her. It had taken me a while to appreciate that. But in not appreciating that, my so-called thing for Audrey had changed. It had morphed and grown into plain old affection. Audrey wasn’t your average girl. And that was a very good thing. She was lively and crazy capable. She was sassy and yet lacked the sheer stupidity that sometimes came along with that. She was just… different. She was just Audrey.
And I really needed to stop thinking about her.
“Eyes on the prize, James,” I spat to myself as I finally reached the right section of the retaining wall. Ever since I’d jumped up the thing, I’d been counting my paces. And now, according to the blueprint, above me would be the outlet to the drain system. And this – this was where my plan would get dicey.
I hadn’t told that to Audrey, of course. I’d told her it would be as simple as pie. All I’d have to do is climb in the drain, clamber through the dungeons, find my brother, and escape the same way I came in.
But there was a spanner in my works.
According to the blueprints, the storm drain was meant to be just a half meter above the retaining wall. In reality? It was two meters above.
“Dammit,” I spat under my breath.
Could I make the jump? Yeah. Under good circumstances. But the drain, being a drain and all, had years of gunk that had oozed out of it and created a seriously nasty, slippery mess that was trailing down the side. In order to make the jump, I’d have to square off in front of the drain. And if I slipped – which was pretty likely - you could say goodbye to James Chase and hello to an identified course floating up on the beaches of the city.
Briefly, I thought of backing out, heading back around to Audrey, and packing this plan in.
Then I remembered what I’d already promised myself. If there was one thing my father would ever have demanded of me, it was to protect my brother. And even though the memory of my father was a complicated, bitter mess, I’d do this for him.
So I tilted my head up, locked my gaze on the dark recess of the drain, gritted my teeth, and made a leap for the wall.
But somewhere back in the city, carried by the wind, I swore I heard something. For a flash of a second, my back told me it was a scream. Then my reason told me was probably just a bird.
It wasn’t a bird.
It was a scream.
And Audrey, dear, sweet Audrey, was in trouble.
I got all of about a block from where I'd left James when I heard it. A scream. Ear-splitting and high-pitched, it came from the
throat of a woman, and one who was presumably in a lot of damn trouble.
As soon as it split the air, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and I jolted to the side. Grabbing a hand on a nearby
lamp post, I locked my fingers in tight around the metal as I twisted to my left and right, staring up and down the tight street
near me. "Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?" I tried.
I teetered on the spot for a moment, my shoes squeaking as I shifted forward and back, but finally my bravery won out, and I pushed
into a jog.
Though I had pretty good hearing, I didn't have echolocation or anything like that, and though I could guess the rough direction
of where that scream had come from, rough locations didn't count for much in cities as densely packed as this one.
I quickly jogged to the end of the street and peered along a branching laneway. No one. Not a damn soul. Fair enough - it was the
dead of the night. No one should be out here save for criminals and stray cats. And yes, I counted myself as the latter, considering
James was currently infiltrating a castle through a damn drain above a cliff.
But enough about that. Though I took several more wary steps down that laneway, I didn't pick up anything else. My ears were peeled
- I mean really peeled. I was concentrating so much on my hearing that I swore I would have been able to pick up a pin drop
several blocks away. But there were no more yelps. Hell, there weren't even any footsteps.
I flirted with calling the cops, but then realized I had nothing to tell them. I had no idea what the nature of that scream had
been - whether the woman had been running for her life from an attacker or whether she'd just had a momentary fright. And hell,
the more I waited there on that dead, lonely street corner, and the more I didn't pick up any sounds of struggle or trouble,
the more I realized it was probably the former, because surely if someone were in trouble, there'd be more than one scream?
I was no stranger to danger, after all. I'd been chased in about every way you could think of. And the one thing you appreciated
after your first near-death experience was that attacks were rarely quiet. They involved a hell of a lot of grunting and swearing,
and guns if you weren't lucky.
"... Come on, Aud," I muttered to myself after another full minute of standing there and waiting for any more nefarious sounds.
"You need to get back to your hotel."
I heard my words, but I didn't pay attention to them. I pushed further down the laneway instead.
Though I was a big girl and, as I'd already mentioned, I knew a thing or two about danger, even I could tell that randomly walking
down cramped and darkened laneways in the wee hours of the morning was not a good thing to do on your lonesome. If James were
here, he'd hit me around my ears and drag me back to the hotel.
But James wasn't here.
And this was my style.
So, keeping my head tucked down, I followed my gut instinct right into trouble.
I was in. The drains at least. And they were just as big and clogged as you’d expect. Though I technically knew when this castle
had been built, these drains seemed so labyrinthine, they felt like they were out of ancient Greece and I’d come across a pissed
Minator if I wasn’t careful. Or hey, a pissed Count. And he would be far worse.
Now I was out here knee deep in the midst of this adventure – literally – I could appreciate just how much shit my brother was
in. But it wasn’t necessarily loyalty to my idiotic sibling that was taking up the fore of my mind – it was the fact he could
take Audrey into this mess with him.
Just before my brain could boil over with anger and I could start screaming at the walls, my intuition kicked into gear. It told
me to slow at just the right moment. Off to my left, I picked up a soft red blip. I really doubted it was a ruby glittering
under its own light.
Hell no, it was a motion detector.
Dammit. The Count wasn’t an idiot, after all. And despite the fact I’d had to parkour my way in here, he’d obviously figured out
that his drain system was a way into his otherwise impenetrable castle.
Before I could freak out, throw my hands up, and pack this mission in, I pulled out my phone. I wasn’t about to pull up a game
of pong to calm my nerves.
This was no ordinary phone – Sandy had organized for it to be sent to me before I left. It was capable of emitting a jamming frequency
that, theoretically, could allow one to walk right past detection equipment like cameras and motion detectors without, you
know, actually being detected.
It was a prototype. According to Sandy, it needed a heck of a lot more field-testing before it became a standard tool for agents.
Which is where I would come in, I guess.
Thumbing to the right app, I prayed like hell this would work.
When the screen blinked into life and told me it was detecting a motion sensor 20 meters ahead, I let out the smallest breath of
relief. But figuring out there was a signal up ahead and jamming it were two very different things.
I teetered back and forth on the spot for several seconds, wondering what I should do. For some damn reason, a large part of me
just wanted to turn around and get back to Audrey. But that little voice in the back of my head – the one that sounded like
my father – told me I had a duty to at least try to save my damn brother.
My better side – or possibly idiotic side – won out, and with a deep breath, I found the balls to trust my phone, and I walked
forward with a wince.
When I came within distance of the relatively simple motion detector, and a ringing alarm didn’t split the air, I relaxed. Kinda.
You see, I doubted the Count was the kind to publically warn people that he was onto them. And he was definitely not the kind
to call the cops. No, Count Driscoll was very much the kind to hunt you silently through the night until you fell head-first
into his trap.
That thought haunted me as I tracked through the tunnels, my trusty phone always held steadily by my side as I walked with all
the poise of a ballerina – well, one dressed in black and who smelled of drain gunk.
It took awhile for the drains to empty out into a holding area under the castle. Or at least I guess you could call it a holding
area. Who knew what the actual purpose of this cavernous space was, but as I walked out into a carved hall with arched pillars
that held up a domed low ceiling above, I instantly frowned.
No, it wasn’t the smell. Okay, a little of it was the smell. I really doubted cleaning out his drains was up there when it came
to the Count’s laundry list of daily activities, right alongside people trafficking and generally being an asshole.
The reason I frowned was that this place hadn’t been on the blue prints. It looked like the kind of flood drains you’d get under
big old museums or castles built on water-logged ground or in areas that flooded easily. Think the food drains under Tokyo
but on a much smaller much creepier scale.
There was something about all the rough, washed stone that reminded me of damsels running away from vampires. These drains would
fit right at home alongside Count Dracula’s torture chamber. And hey, maybe that’s why Driscol called himself a Count – it
was a homage to blood-sucking and general evil throughout history.
You might have already picked up that my mind was running away from me and my imagination was very much getting the better of me.
It wasn’t just the fact this place shouldn’t be here according to the blueprints I’d seen. It was that, deep down in my head,
something told me I shouldn’t be here. And I had no idea if that was because I was the proverbial fly walking into the spider’s
web, or if out there, with Audrey, there was something I should be doing instead.
Indecision flooded me again as I stared over my shoulder back into the roughly hewn doorway that led into the drains.
My heart wanted to pull me back there.
… My brain won out.
I turned, and I walked on.
Define creepy? Is it atmosphere? Because, check, this weird drain system had atmosphere. It felt like I was walking through Godzilla's lair.
How about potentially dangerous? Check - this place was dripping with danger. Literally, as who knew what kind of shit had accumulated on the water-damaged
ceiling over the years. Shit that would drip down around me in wet, foul-smelling splodges that turned my nose.
How about darkness? Yeah, obviously it was dark. And there were plenty of strange gurgles and bangs and whatnot thrown into the mix.
There's another aspect of creepy this room had down pat - the fact I felt at any moment as if some bastard would jump out from behind one of these
pillars and kill me.
The back of my neck felt like spiders were crawling over it, and a sticky sweat covered the top of my brow and upper lip.
I’m usually a heck of a lot ballsier than this – I’ve done more missions than I can count.
This one felt wrong. As I quietly traipsed across the ground toward a door on the opposite side, I got the distinct impression that the walls were
watching me. I hadn’t developed a fine case of paranoia in the last couple of minutes, but I couldn’t shake that damn feeling as I neared the far
Within a few more steps, I started to see markings on the wall. An old mural, if you will. What it was doing down in the medieval equivalent of a glorified
sewer, I didn’t know. I could tell you one thing – despite the dark, as I approached, I could pick up enough to tell you that whoever had painted
that had been damn talented indeed. They’d had an insane eye-for-detail for someone who was essentially doing up the dunny.
By the time I reached the door, my head was screaming at me to turn back. I kept checking and rechecking my phone as I held it out beside me, benefiting
from the light the screen was throwing. It wasn’t picking up any signals close by. That didn’t soothe my mind. Nothing short of a medical-grade
opioid would right now.
Or, you know, a knock to the skull.
The latter wasn’t going to happen. The former?
The first thing I heard was a light patter from two meters behind me.
My eyes had a chance to widen, then there was the squeak of quick-moving rubber-soles on stone.
I shoved to the side, rounding my shoulder and pivoting, throwing all my weight into the move to absorb my assailant’s blow.
But my assailant wasn’t playing nice. They’d brought along a bat to a fist-fight.
They slammed that very same bat across my face. I had time to feel the blood splatter from my nose and lips before unconsciousness swamped me.
I was out by the time I fell limply at their feet, my phone clattering away into the darkness and into a deep puddle of dark water. For the both of
us, it was lights out.
I kept telling myself that I couldn’t sit in that hotel room a minute longer waiting for James to return. I kept telling myself that rather than trying
to get some shut eye, heading out and investigating this red diamond would be saner.
Wait, had I just said saner? Had I lost my mind that much that I no longer knew the difference between common sense and complete, bat-shit insane reasoning
that would see you try to break into a clock tower at 3:30 in the morning?
“Fuck, I’m an idiot,” I barely let the words touch the air as I finished picking the lock at the back of the tower. Fortunately, this place had a back
end, and fortunately, it was surrounded by a park. A dark park.
The lock was easy enough to pick – for someone who’d hung around with James Chase, that is. He’d pulled me aside once and taught me exactly how to
jimmy a lock in the right direction, and I drew on those skills now, my fingers slicked with sweat as my breath damn near trembled out of me.
I kept staring over my shoulders methodically in case anyone was trying to sneak up from behind me.
There was no one. Yet. Though I was pretty sure that this clock tower ran itself and wouldn’t need maintenance staff, it was still a tourist attraction.
One of the number one sights to see on this island, apparently, other than the Count’s castle, that was.
Not the point. The point was I was very much illegally breaking and entering, and I had to keep my eye on the prize.
“If there even is a damn prize in this clock tower, you idiot. That portrait might point here, but you’re forgetting about the Verini Papers. Presumably
you have to find those before you get the diamond,” I chastised myself.
The one thing I didn’t stop doing was try to pick the lock. With a few more flicks of the metal wire I was using, I finally managed it. With an almost
triumphant click, the lock fell off into my trembling grip.
A massive grin had all of about two seconds to spread my lips, then the clock struck the half hour. It didn’t just remind me of the time. I had to
twist my head to the side to block out the resonant ring that powered through the base of the tower.
“Damn,” I muttered under my breath as I pocketed both the lock and the pick. I didn’t fancy keeping the lock as a souvenir of my first crime in Maratova.
I needed the weight of it as it banged against my leg to remind me of two things: to lock up once I was done, and to hurry the hell up.
With a bounce in my step as if I was a windup toy, I pushed through the darkened room. It was wide, and though barely any illumination made it in from
the high windows that lined the room on both sides, my eyes had adjusted enough that I could make out old exhibits. There were glass cases and
those little swinging ropes you get between metal bollards at museums.
I’d already read in one of my brochures before I’d left the hotel that this clock tower had once been a museum. But then the government had lost funding
to maintain it. Not that it had ever had the funding. Apparently, Driscoll’s family had been the ones to pay for it over the years, but ever since
the Count had taken over the family business, as it were, he’d cut off funding. Probably too busy breaking international law to undercut a shitty
clock tower museum.
Okay, it wasn't that shitty. As I walked up to one of the old glass cases and peered inside, I could appreciate that though whatever had once been
in the case had been removed, it was quality glass. The tough kind of stuff you put real valuables behind.
I lingered for a bit, almost getting down on my knees to look under the case, then I felt the weight of the lock knocking into my leg, and I reminded
myself to damn well move.
Pivoting on my foot, I headed toward the back of the room and a door that would presumably lead up to the clock tower. It had another lock on it, but
you know what? I was an old hat at picking them by now. In a few seconds, it was off, and I stuffed it in my other pocket.
The door creaked open, though I was professional enough to control it as I put a hand on the door to mediate the strain on the hinges as it swung inward.
I'd been in clock towers before. You know, history buff and all. This one, just like the rest of them, had a huge shaft like tower and a wooden circular
staircase that led up to the clock platform and mechanism above.
I secured a hand on the wood banister, then immediately whipped it off and wiped some of the dust covering the rest of the wood over the mark my hand
had left. Best not to leave any evidence.
I quietly walked up the creaky stairs - or as quietly as I could, considering they looked as if they hadn't been updated since the building of the
Every step was accompanied with a woody groan that reminded me of climbing a tree. A tree you weren't entirely sure could take your weight.
My heart sped up a little as I climbed up to the clock's primary mechanism. It wasn't just the cardio of ascending - it was the feel of the clock's
massive cogs clunking around. It was like withstanding mini earthquakes every second.
The clock’s face and the massive perpetually-turning cogs that kept it ticking were at the top of the tower, divided from the stairs by a dusty platform.
It was the kind of platform that you wanted to inspect like crazy before putting your weight on it. Because it was the kind of platform that looked
rickety enough to break if a particularly heavy mote of dust fell on it, let alone a shapely woman like me.
“Bottoms up,” I said as I reached the final step. “No, wait. That sounded wrong. Here goes,” I settled for as I hesitated then carefully placed my
left foot on the rickety wooden floor.
Did it creak? Oh heck yes it creaked. The kind of deep, shuddering creak that sounded like an old arthritic soul unfolding themselves from a chair.
But not, fortunately, the kind of creak that preceded the end of my life.
I let out a trapped breath and put my full weight on the floor.
Now the threat of immediate death was over, I locked my gaze on the clock face.
It was stunning. Even in the dark I could tell that.
The face was made from some white composite, and it was just translucent enough that it let in the light of the moon outside.
Completely lost by the beauty of the old structure, I reached out a hand and let the tips of my fingers slide down the metal inserts that supported
the outside of the face. Rust and grease sloughed off on my fingers, but I didn’t damn well care.
I was a history buff, remember? James was the one who got off on running around, ducking danger, and finding treasure.
To me, it was moments like these – when the present came alive with the majesty of the past – that made my heart beat.
Back down at the base of the tower, I swore I heard a thump.
My heart sped the hell up, then revved even more, kicking into its highest gear as I whipped my head over my shoulder and pared my hearing.
My breath still, my body poised, I waited for another noise.
… But there was nothing. No more bumps or thumps, and thankfully, no screams of, “This is the police, you’re screwed.”
I turned back, wiping my sweaty hands on my pants as I tilted my head up and faced the clock.
That thump might have been nothing more than a false alarm, but I still needed to speed things the hell up lest I spend the entire night here and get
caught sneaking out in the morning.
“Okay, Audrey Diamond,” I uttered under my breath, the words soft and quiet. “Time to find the Verini Papers. Or the diamond. Or both.”
I locked my palms back on my legs, driving my stiff fingers down into my jeans, as if squeezing my legs would somehow send more blood to my brain and
kick the damn thing into gear.
It didn’t work.
“What do we know? Northwest. All the clues pointed to the northwest,” I muttered as I titled my head even further, my neck straining. I stared into
the dark northwest corner of the face, the loud grind of the clock mechanism behind me driving through my damn body like a jackhammer.
If the clue did indicate the northwest corner of the clock, I was screwed, because short of scaffolding, there was no damn way I could get up there.
I crammed my hand over my mouth, shifted toward the clock face, and started assessing it with the most critical eye I could manage without my brain
blasting apart from the strain of it all.
I stared and prodded at every centimetre I could, but to no avail.
I took a step back, pushed up on my tiptoes, and stared with all my might at the northwest corner.
Some kind of recess.
“Crap,” I muttered. “How am I going to get up there?” My gaze darted over to the metal structure built into the wall that held the face in place. “Am
I going to have to climb that?”
“I really wouldn’t recommend it,” a deep voice suddenly rumbled out from behind me.