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 a 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 hire 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 a 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 who 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 call,” 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 remuneration. 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 employment 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’d been 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 Internet. 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 on 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 in to 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 an 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 sounds 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 European socialites. 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 they were irritating the hell out of me was that 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, 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 investor, 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 she didn’t get caught in metal grating.
She had sharp features and perfectly shiny black hair that was cut at her jawline.
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 backstories, I would have tried not to make them sound like a James Bond plot.
“I’m an antique 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 the government and us, 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 bedchambers, 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've 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 clear path to the treasure when we come back for it.”
I frowned. “You mean when he busts 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 wandered 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 desperately needed.
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 rooms.
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 went wrong—
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 control.
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 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 a 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 Count.
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 a 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 do 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 hidden.
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 a 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 notes.
“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 here 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 door.
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 pink.
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, my 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 something.
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 to him.”
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 a 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 goodbye.
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 on 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 thumbnail 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 leaped 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 got 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 lamppost, 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 publicly 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 low domed 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 blueprints. 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.
I’d walked the streets, but I’d found nothing, save for a diary that someone had discarded in the drain. Being the general goody-two-shoes I was, I’d picked up the diary, intending to find a bin to throw it in, but it being night, and this city being as well lit as the inside of a sea cave, I’d ended up taking it home with me.
Now I sat on the edge of my bed, periodically staring at a gap in the curtains as if I thought James would throw himself at the top window of this hotel rather than announce he was back by, you know, just knocking on the damn door.
“Come on, girl – just go to bed. You know it’ll take a while for him to do his thing.” I jammed my nail into my mouth and bit down on it so hard, it was like I was trying to drive it through my gums.
My gums were the least of my concern right now. No matter how much self-talk I threw my way, I knew there was no chance I would be able to sleep. Thoughts of James would assail me the minute my head hit the pillow.
So I jumped to my feet instead. It didn’t matter that they ached and I’d had one hell of a long and fraught day. As long as I was on them, at least I felt like I was doing something.
“Yeah, sure, Audrey, you’re standing around and talking to yourself – way to go to be useful,” I chided myself meanly as I got several paces away from the bed, whirled on my heel, and tramped back again, my socks digging into the high pile of the carpet.
I paced back and forth for several excruciating minutes. I swear every second was like pulling teeth. But no matter how many times I stopped hopefully in front of the door, it didn’t swing in to a rakish, grinning James with his brother safely in tow behind him.
By now, I’d been through enough damn adventures to understand how I operated in them. There would always come a point where my nerves and desire to do something would collide like two unlucky freight trains in some 5th-graders maths question.
That time was now. With one enormous breath that shoved my chest hard against my dressing gown, I walked straight over to the bed.
I couldn’t head up to the castle and try to save James. I knew my limitations. Nor was I stupid enough to call the Count and ask if I could come to see him in the wee hours of the morning. That letch didn’t need any more excuses to sleaze on me.
What I could do, however, was start looking into a mystery. What was a girl like me good for, after all, but actually knuckling down and searching through clues?
I walked right up to the spot where I’d left the miniature portrait on my bed. I’d smoothed the otherwise messy doona down when I’d placed it there reverentially out of its box. It didn’t matter that this portrait was a present from a goddamn people smuggler – the object itself had historical and monetary value. I could respect it without extending that same respect to Mr. Count Letch.
Plucking it up and placing it in the palm of my hand, I spun on my foot and headed over to the window. I wasn’t looking for James – okay, okay, I did spare a few seconds to glance at the street to see if he was there. When he wasn’t, I took advantage of the moonlight making it in through the curtains.
I could have legitimately turned the light on and all, but I felt weird about it. James had already warned me on the way to the castle that this hotel had been way too easy to break into.
So the lights were off and the moon would have to do. Angling the miniature up, always holding it with my fingers around the back of the frame, I started to search for a reason why this damn thing could be so important.
Because it had to be important, right? I’d been right when I’d muttered to James that this portrait probably had something to do with the Verini Papers, yeah?
… What if the Count wanted me to find them?
What if I could find them and use them as collateral in case James’ rescue mission failed?
“Would you just listen to the shit you’re thinking, Audrey?” I chastised myself with a bitter, quick breath. “Count Frigging Driscoll sent you this to ensnare you in some way. If you find the treasure – you’ll just be playing into his hands.” Even as I said it, I swore the words didn’t come from me, but I channeled them from a certain James Chase. I remembered the look he’d shot me after that man from the palace had delivered this portrait.
And I held onto that look as I half-closed my eyes. But as soon as I winked one open to find that perfect little miniature still in my hand, my curiosity started to get the better of me.
What would be the harm in figuring out if this portrait did have something to do with the Papers? It would at least distract me from wondering where James was right now and staring at the door like a lost puppy waiting for her owner.
I sat down comfortably on the edge of the bed and started to read some of the brochures and books I’d brought with me. In half an hour, I had a list of notes as long as my arm and two key points. This portrait had belonged to the King of Maratova. Hell, it had been painted by his sister. The same sister who’d owned the red diamond.
The red diamond had been a bit of a sticking point between the Royal siblings, or at least according to the internet scrounging I was doing. Old King Alver had been jealous that his father had bestowed one of the greatest treasures of the Kingdom onto his lowly sister. Jealous enough to, according to the rather salacious page I was reading, set up a fake engagement with an agent loyal to him. Said agent demanded the diamond as a dowry, then promptly ran off after the marriage. The King got his sticky paws on the diamond and broke his sister’s heart to boot. Great guy, huh?
As for the sister, apparently she wasn’t such a pushover, after all. During a fire at the palace, the diamond conveniently went missing, a ransom note in place cut in the shape of half a heart.
Though the King always suspected it was his sister, without proof, he’d been unable to go against the court and throw her in his oh-so-convenient basement dungeon. His sister – Eliza – had lived out the rest of her life as an artist specializing in miniatures while Alver had gone on to, you know, be a dick.
Obviously being an entitled asshole came with the territory, because as I read about Alver, I got the distinct impression Driscoll was his modern-day equivalent.
“You go, Eliza,” I whispered to myself as I finished reading her story and appreciated she’d outlived her brother by twenty years and went on to be a famous painter throughout Europe, albeit under a man’s name.
And that name was Edgar Stent.
After I’d finished jotting down my notes, I rose to my feet and stared at the portrait. Now I was ready to look for clues. You see, James always got that bit around the wrong way. You didn’t look at an object and appraise it for hidden symbols and whatnot until you knew everything about its history. History framed and gave context. James may be too quick and wild-at-heart to ever slow down long enough to read a book, but that’s why he needed me.
I paused as I thought that. My eyes traced across the room, practically caressing the carpet until they stopped at the spot where he’d almost kissed me or undressed me or done something. Because he had done something, right? The heat of his breath on my neck was still there. And even though I was holding an object of considerable historical value, that didn’t stop me from dropping it in a cupped hand and walking right back to the point on the carpet where James had—
“Ah, Audrey, just give it a rest.” I pushed my lips into a frown as I shook my head, lingered for a half second, then pushed defiantly toward to the bed. With the portrait still in hand, I angled it toward the light coming in through the crack in the curtains. “If I was a badass princess who burnt down half a palace to get back her favorite diamond, where would I have hidden it?”
The portrait couldn’t answer. What it could do was draw me in. Because damn, Eliza had been a good painter. Or should I say Edgar Stent? That was the minuscule signature in the top right hand corner of the portrait. Which was a weird damn place to put a signature. To be fair, the portrait was of a woman wearing white seated on a stone bench in a rose garden, and the base of the portrait was too light for a signature. Still, no one tagged the top of a painting. Unless they had a point to make.
Top left corner, ha?
I started to look for other things in the portrait. There was a person – it being a portrait and all – but beyond the woman and the bench and the roses, I finally picked up something to the side. A sundial.
Damn was this princess good. She must have had the eye of an eagle, because as I brought the portrait up and stared at the sundial, I realized I could read the time on it. And the time was roughly 10ish minutes to 11.
I grinned. The sundial was to the side of the picture, sure, but the relative angle of the shadow was the same as the placement of the name. Bit confusing, but bear with me. The name was in the north-west corner, and the angle of the shadow pointed to the north-west too.
“Now that’s a clue if ever I’ve seen one.” I grinned, got down on my knees, and started scribbling in my book again.
Though north-west was great, there were a hell of a lot of things in the world that were in the north-west. I needed something to narrow it down.
So I kept looking at the portrait. Though it could have been tempting to pull the back off, I wasn’t a heretic, and anyway, I could see from the damage to the pins that held the backing in place that someone had already removed it before. Badly. Probably the Count, definitely because he was an idiot and would have thought Princess Eliza would have just added a convenient note to the back detailing exactly where the diamond was.
No. Eliza had been clever, and even though she’d lived over 150 years ago, I felt a kind of connection to the woman, not least because we both disagreed ardently with the men of her family line.
And hey, my last name was Diamond, so that was another connection, right?
I kept studying the portrait, turning it around and around in my hand as if I thought the thing was a clock.
… Wait up.
Shut the front door and hold the hell on.
There were two clocks in this tiny portrait – the sundial and the ladies watch sitting daintily on the woman’s right wrist.
“Oh no, wait, there are three,” I announced as I fanned my face and grinned.
I grabbed up my phone. I’d heard the name Edgar Stent before, hadn’t I? Just not in relation to portraits.
I Googled him, and the first search was all it took. Though it came up with Princess Eliza’s paintings, it also came up with a famous clockmaker.
Coincidence? Oh, hell no.
“This has something to do with a clock.” I jumped from foot-to-foot excitedly as I ran over to the curtain. I pulled it back and stared across the city skyline until my eyes locked on the right tower. The clock tower, to be precise. The one that had been under construction roughly at the same time Eliza had gone all pyro on her brother’s palace.
“The clues line up,” I muttered under my breath as I let my eyes lock on the hands of the massive clock face. They were at just the right angle that the dimming moonlight glimmered along them.
It was 3:13. The perfect time for two things – sleeping and creeping around cities in the dark.
I was still technically waiting for James, but there was nothing to say I couldn’t be proactive.
I reached for my coat and headed out the door.
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 wall.
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 tower itself.
Every step was accompanied by 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.
But you know what else could make 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 tilted 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.
Had I come here for nothing?
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 centimeter 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.
There was a darker shadow up there, wasn’t there?
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.
I came around as smoothly as sandpaper dragged through rocks. My head rattled like a can of coins in the hand of a Parkinson’s patient, and my body felt like a pin cushion – a broken one.
But I was no stranger to waking rough. The first rule was to check if you were tied to a chair. If you weren’t, good on you.
If you were?
You were screwed.
I shouldn’t need to tell you I was in the former category. Long before I could open my bleary, blood-encrusted eyelids, I experimentally tugged on my wrists. I felt chains tied around them. Not rope, not cable ties – frigging chains.
Though I was hardly the kind of guy who ran around tying people up for fun, I knew a thing or two about restrains. Though chains were sturdy and all, rope could be tied closer to the skin, and when you were restraining someone, you didn’t want to give them any wiggle room.
Yeah, well, whoever had locked these chains around my wrists had accounted for that problem by wrapping them so tightly, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore.
“He’s awake,” a gravelly voice came from my side. It was the kind of voice you would expect from a guy who’d use chains rather than rope. That is, frigging unbearably hard. It sounded like the man had nails in his throat.
It took me a moment to appreciate my jailer was competent enough to have deduced my waking state, despite the fact I hadn’t moved more than my wrist.
Though the last thing I wanted to do was open my eyes, I got a hand – literally as someone thrust forward, anchored a dirty, sweaty palm on my face, and yanked my left eyelid open with all the finesse of a bulldozer mowing the lawn.
I stared up into a predictably unattractive mug. A lightning-fast assessment told me two things – this guy wasn’t a model, but that was okay, because he made more money ruining faces than he did keeping them pretty.
I knew the rules in interrogations like this – sorry, tortures – and it was to shut the hell up and pretend you were barely conscious. If your jailor thought you were half-vegetative, they’d give up soon enough.
But I had a wise mouth on me – in case you’d forgotten. And I couldn’t stop it from opening. “Good morning, sir. Where’s breakfast?”
“Want me to stuff your mouth?” he snarled, two kinked lips snagging high and revealing a set of teeth that would make any dentist reach for the pliers. “How about a knuckle sandwich?”
… I’d walked into that one.
The guy came good on his offer to stuff his fist in my gob. He punched me so hard, shooting pain sliced into my head and made me feel like I’d stuck a fork in a toaster then followed it up by sticking my tongue in too.
I decided to be a brave boy and stifle my groan as the guy leaned back, shook his hand, and snarled. I ignored my pain, and critically, the desire to get my own back with another well-placed wisecrack, though they lined up behind my bleeding lips easily enough.
“What? That silence you, wise guy?”
Just shut up, James, I tried to tell myself.
The guy chucked his head back and laughed as if he was some kind of b-grade megalomaniac. “The Count said you’d at least try to act tougher. I’m here to break you, see. I’m kind of disappointed it was this easy.”
My eyes narrowed, and it wasn’t at the admission that this guy was working for the Count. Though I had lost consciousness and woken up to a goon who was too free with his spittle and his fist, I knew where I was. I was, presumably, still in the basement levels of the castle somewhere.
I doubted this guy had found me and taken it upon himself to hand out some good old hospitality on his own. No. I imagined the Count was nearby somewhere.
I took the opportunity to stare around the room. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that it was a bona fide dungeon cell. From the uneven, roughly hewn cobblestone floor, to the metal bars, it looked as if I’d been transported back several hundred years ago. Though the earpiece in the goon’s ear kind of gave that effect away. So too did the Desert Eagle holstered at his hip.
Thought the guy was important, and all, I concentrated on the earpiece. While it was far enough into the man’s ear that I wouldn’t be able to pick up any sounds, I didn’t need to to know when someone was speaking to him. I had enough training to pick up the subtle shift in my jailor’s attention as his eyes ticked a few centimeters to the side and he briefly ignored me.
When he was done, he snaked out with a vicious punch that could have knocked me back into unconsciousness if I didn’t know how to roll with the punches, as the saying went. I couldn’t exactly roll while tied to a chair, but I could activate my muscles and deliberately loosen my neck while strengthening my core. It didn’t shield me from the punch, but at least it meant my lights stayed on.
The guy didn’t loosen his knuckles with a shake of his hand this time. He just punched me in the gut.
I groaned but said nothing. I hadn’t grunted once, and I wouldn’t.
“The Count wants to know where it is,” the guy snarled as he pushed back, rounded his hand into another fist, and hovered over me.
Though I’d been telling myself not to open my lips once unless to yawn, I broke my own rule as I said, “There are a lot of its in this world, buddy. You’re going to need to narrow it down.”
“Listen here,” he roared as he shoved forward, his shoes squeaking on the cobble. He grabbed the back of the metal chair behind me, anchored his fingers on it, and brought his head right down to my left ear. “I hate wise guys,” he whispered.
My whole body had been braced as I’d expected him to shout into my ear as loudly as he could. Whispers I could take, even if the guy’s breath was as fetid and welcome as a century-old rotted corpse.
“I could play dumb if you’d prefer,” I replied smoothly.
“Just tell me where it is,” he bellowed with all his worth.
Though I’d made a life out of being tough and in control, there are a few fear responses you will never master. Jerking away from unexpected loud sounds is one of them. So there was nothing I could do as I twisted my head to the side, my ear ringing like a church bell.
The guy rose, his vile gaze locked on me. I wasn’t usually the kind of poet to describe people’s gazes as vile. Come one, I wasn’t smack bang out of some 1800s pirate adventure here. But when it came to this goon, I wanted to stamp vile on his head and write it on every picture that had ever been taken of him. He took odious to an entirely new level.
“Where is it?” he snarled once more through bared teeth.
“What is it?” I said clearly, for the first time not bothering to layer on some wise-ass smarm. Though it was fun on one level to rile this guy up – my body definitely wouldn’t thank me in the morning.
“The red diamond, you cock.”
“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I couldn’t resist, even though many of my friends described me as the cockiest person they’d ever met.
“Answer the question, or I’ll beat you to a pulp.”
“Pulps can’t take you to diamonds. They just sit on the ground acting gooey.”
He growled like he had a Doberman shoved down his throat.
My mouth twitched into a smile. Suffice to say, it didn’t last. With another growl, the bastard hit me again. This time he put a bit of extra oomph into it, and my neck cracked as it jerked to the side like a flag in a hurricane.
When my head bobbed back to its center position, there was an unholy ringing in my ears. Oh yeah, and blood dripping from my mouth. It was a health hazard to razz up emotionally unstable jailors with no concept of personal space and basic human rights.
The guy went to punch me again. Though I was telling myself not to wince, I couldn’t help it. Every muscle tensed as my body waited for the blow that would finally render me unconscious.
That wince was all it took. The guy paused, his knuckles stopping just before my face. “Finally got your attention, ha?” He let out the kind of twisted laugh any evil overlord would be proud of. “You’ve got two options.”
“I bet both of them are painful.”
“You’re right, they will be. Option one: tell me where the red diamond is. Option number two: wait a bit, get beaten more, then tell me where the red diamond is.”
“I choose option three.”
“I’m not going to let you die yet,” he snarled.
I had to admit that I twitched internally at that. Either the guy was a great actor and he’d missed his chance for an Oscar, or he really did plan to kill me later. In my head, the Count would have just gotten this goon to rough me up, but nothing more.
I had a moment to remind myself of Driscoll’s particular odious history, and my stomach sank as it told me he was exactly the kind of shady bastard who would kill a prisoner, no questions asked.
“So pick one of the two options,” the guy continued with a snarl.
No more games. No more wisecracks. It was time to remind myself that living was always preferable to dying from a fatal one-liner. “I don’t know where the red diamond is. I haven’t found it yet.”
“So you know where it is?”
I shook my head. “I’ve got no idea.”
“None at all, ha?”
“None at all.”
“You’re lying.” The guy went to punch me again.
I flinched back. “I’m not lying. I’ve got no idea where it is, dammit.”
“The Count already sent you a clue. I thought you two were meant to be the best treasure hunters out there, ha?”
I’d flinched. I’d twitched. I’d even started to play along. But now I paled as if the bastard had stabbed my jugular.
… The two of us?
The guy leaned in, locking a hand on the back of my chair, bringing his face up real close as if it was a bus and my nose was a bug about to be crushed on its windshield. “You think we don’t know about her? You think we don’t have someone watching her right now?”
“You bastard. Listen to me, she’s not part of this—”
The guy straightened up, cracked his shoulders, turned, and walked to the door. He inclined his head over his shoulder and looked at me. Without another damn word, he strode out and locked it.
“She’s not part of this! Dammit, listen. Leave her alone.” No matter how hard I screamed, he didn’t come back.
The Count had found my pain point, and now he would press it.
I twisted around as fast as I could, expecting one of the Count’s men.
It’s not what I got.
Jake Grimsby took a step out of the darkness, one arm looped around his middle as he rested his elbow in his hand. He had his phone, and he was tapping it as he stared at me. “Sorry to surprise you. Then again, maybe you should be sorry for surprising me. I didn’t expect to find you here, after all.”
“Jake, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Audrey, what the hell are you doing here?” He’d been pulling off cool and suave – until now. Now his face hardened like goddamn concrete.
I felt the need to put my hands up as if his mere expression was a weapon. “I’m just looking for the next clue.”
Jake made an act of staring around him. “Looks like you’re breaking and entering into foreign property in a foreign land. You know what they do to criminals around these parts? Especially if the Count finds them snooping around his interests?”
I finally dropped my hands. “Are you seriously about to lecture me? Where the hell have you been? And where’s James?” I quickly switched my gaze off him, my eyes growing wider as I tried to pick James up out of the darkness.
I’d be lying to you if I said my heart didn’t tremble for a few beats, fluttering like the wings of a butterfly.
But my knight in shining armor – or fancy suits – didn’t appear.
“I’d say by now he’s probably being tortured by the Count,” Jake said, voice even.
My heart might’ve been fluttering before – now it felt like a bird midflight that had just had its wings cut off. ”What?” I spluttered. “Is that a joke?”
“I don’t joke about things like that.”
“The Count has James? What? How—”
“You shouldn’t have got him involved in this. I was fine. Unlike my little brother, I know how to look after myself. And unlike my little brother, I do this as a living and not a hobby.”
Though I could’ve leveled the charge at Jake that he’d been uncaring about his brother before, now I could see the anger rising through Jake like steam.
I put my hands up again. They were sweaty, and though I tried to hold them stiffly, I was starting to lose the will to stand, let alone hold my damn hand steady. “What the hell is happening? James went into the castle to rescue you. How did he get captured? How do you know? Why haven’t you broken him out yet?” I began, and asking one question was like asking for the dam in my head to break. As soon as my nervous ruminations spilled, they just kept spilling.
Jake crossed his arms. “I just told you, Audrey – I’m the professional here. You shouldn’t have gotten my brother involved.”
“None of that matters,” I said desperately. “Where is the Count holding him? Did you call the police? Did you call the Home Office? What do we do—”
“I,” Jake stabbed a thumb at himself, “go in and save that little idiot. You,” he stabbed a finger toward me, “go back to the goddamn hotel. I’m starting to regret bringing you along. This has been a lot less fun than I thought it would be.”
“Fun?” I said, voice halfway between a spitting sneer and plain hysteria at the fact that James was gone. “You practically kidnapped me and brought me here. James figured it out and came looking for me. When he found out where you were, he—”
“Tried to play the hero. Yeah, I get it. I wouldn’t have thought you would fall for that, though,” Jake said, rearing off-topic, despite the fact this was no time to discuss anything but breaking James free.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“That I thought you were smart. Turns out you’re like the rest of his girls.”
“Rest of his girls? Actually, fuck it, I don’t care. The only thing I care about right now, Jake, is breaking into that castle and getting James back.”
“You weren’t listening. You’re going back to your hotel. I’m going to break my little brother out.”
“You brought me along here for a reason—”
“Yeah, well, things have changed. I want you back where it’s safe.”
“Safe? The Count knows exactly where that hotel room is. He clearly knows who we are, too.”
“So what are you getting at? That it’s safer to trundle around,” he looked at me pointedly, “foreign assets in the middle of the night? You know what the Count would do if he caught you committing a crime?”
“He’d fucking use it against you, Audrey. This is no time to stuff around. Get back to the hotel. Leave the rest of it to me.”
“You’re not thinking straight—”
“I told you, I’m the professional here.”
“And this isn’t exactly my first rodeo. I’ve dealt with maniacs like the Count before. The best thing we can do right now is buy ourselves a chance. And the only way to do that is to find what he’s after. If we can find the red diamond—”
“Nobody’s finding the red diamond. I guarantee you the bastard probably already has it.”
“Why would he send me that small portrait, then? He clearly doesn’t have it. And he clearly wants me to find it.”
“Have you thought this through? What if you do find it? Do you honestly think a bastard like Count Driscoll is gonna let you swap the diamond for James? Or do you think that he’s going to take both instead? You don’t negotiate with people like this, Audrey. You cut them off at the knees.”
“No, you’re not.” Jake took a sharp step forward, his dress shoes pounding against the floorboards and kicking up a cloud of dust.
“If you grab me by the wrist – I’m gonna flip you,” I snarled.
Jake chuckled. “I’m not going to grab you. And I’m not going to drag you anywhere. I know you can see sense. Because that’s the difference between you and my brother. You’re smart. He acts on instinct. I reckon you can see my point, Miss Diamond – with the inclusion of my brother, this mission is no longer viable. We’ll get out of the country, lick our wounds, and rethink our options. And that’s nonnegotiable.”
I opened my mouth to push my point. I stopped. Because I could see the look in Jake’s eyes. If you’d asked me when the brute had appeared on my doorstep whether Jake could ever look this real, I would’ve laughed in your face. There was something perpetually fake about the guy. From his perfect smile to his coiffed hair, to his Instagram sixpack body – Jake Grimsby looked like a Ken doll come to life. A Ken doll whose brains had been scrambled by too much James Bond, that is.
But now I saw his emotion. And it was as real as the beating heart in my chest. His concern for his brother practically bled from him like blood from an artery. His back was hunched, his shoulders drooped, and his mouth tugged into a hard but wavering frown as if the strong bastard suddenly didn’t have the stamina to hold his lips in a line. “I’m not screwing around, Audrey. Get back to the hotel. You’ll be one thing I won’t have to think about as I plan to get my brother back.”
I closed my eyes. I sighed. “Fine.”
I couldn’t believe I’d actually agreed to that.
“Thank God,” Jake said. Though he’d promised not to, he shifted forward and grabbed my hand.
I looked at him pointedly.
In the light making it in through the stained-glass clock face, I saw shadows play over his face as his cheeks pulled his lips into a wide grin. “What?” he asked.
“I told you I’d flip you if you grabbed my hand.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t mind you getting me on my back,” Jake managed.
A few flutters chased through my stomach at that innuendo. I didn’t let them move me as I tugged my hand back lightly. “You know, I might’ve just met you, but I can already read you like an open book. You’re a lot more like your brother than you’d like to think. And right now, though you can try to distract yourself with shady one-liners, it’s not gonna work. You’re scared for James. So don’t waste any more time.”
Jake arched an eyebrow. He looked at me… and I swore he was reassessing something. Just as I’d seen the real Jake Grimsby a few minutes ago, I saw him again. I swore there was a fragile man wrapped up in that impenetrable exterior of muscles and charm. “You’re nothing like the girls I usually meet, Audrey Diamond,” he admitted.
It was my turn for a little bit of innuendo. I looked at him pointedly from under my eyelashes. “That’s because I’m not a girl. Now let’s go.”
I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. I was certain that there was a clue in here. But… though it pained the adventurous side of my soul, Jake was right. Right now finding the treasure didn’t matter – even if it would give us currency with the Count later.
Right now James was my only priority. So I let Jake Grimsby lead me out of the clock tower and into the night.
Blood was dribbling down from a massive gash in my brow. My stomach rightly felt as if someone had used it as a xylophone, and I was having so much trouble holding myself up, I felt like a fish that had been de-boned.
I could tell you who wasn’t having any trouble, though – dear old Count Driscoll.
The bastard had come to see me. I felt honored. No, really, I did. The kind of honor you’d feel if death himself decided to show up to your measly fucking funeral.
I looked up at him from under my creased, bloodstained brow. I hadn’t said a word since he’d entered and the other guy had left. And I wouldn’t say a word.
You see, this wasn’t a game anymore. They’d locked onto Audrey, and….
I shivered, every muscle tensing as I tried to push my fear away. But it was a fear that couldn’t be swallowed. It raced over my skin, bringing another keen slick of sweat to my brow as it dribbled down, caught along the blood, and slicked across my temples.
Since the Count had wandered in, he’d just stood there, one hand behind him, the other tapping on his thigh. He looked like the very picture of a competent torturer, but it was more than a picture, wasn’t it? If the Interpol files were anything to go by, Count Driscoll was the kind of malevolent Royal scum you only got back in the days of Ivan the frigging Impaler. The only good thing this man would ever do for his community would be to take his final breath.
“You will talk eventually. You’ll have no option.”
I just stared at him.
“She’ll be here shortly. You will talk when she’s here, won’t you? I imagine you’ll find your lips loosening when we lock hers under a gag.”
My stomach kicked. It practically hurled itself against my abdomen as if it wanted to escape and strangled this bastard.
Though it was hell, I said nothing.
I’d made a mistake when I’d revealed my feelings for Audrey. Now they had my pain point, they’d just keep pressing. The only thing I could do now to keep her safe was feigning indifference.
But you try feigning indifference when every word felt like a bullet through your heart.
“It’s a pity. She’s a nice girl, after all. Seems to be very capable, too.” The Count didn’t even look at me as he spoke. He shifted his gaze around the room, locking it on each wall in turn as if he was simply musing to himself.
I kept myself still and steady. That was literally the only thing I could do. Not slumping forward and dribbling on my knee was the equivalent of climbing frigging Mount Everest. My body felt like it had gone through a washing machine and then been stuck in a blender for good measure.
Yeah, I couldn’t keep going back to my damn heart.
The only thing I could do to stop it from frigging exploding was to try to tell myself that Audrey was a smart girl. She was intelligent, goddammit. She wouldn’t let Driscoll’s men capture her.
I tried to let that thought settle. It wouldn’t. I was about as likely to digest it as a rock dipped in acid.
Audrey was smart. Driscoll was brutal. He also seemingly had the frigging local government in his pocket. All of the odds were stacked against Audrey.
“You don’t have to talk. You can stay silent. Because you,” Driscoll said as he loomed above me, “have limited usefulness. She? I think she will find me exactly what I want. I just have to find the right way to encourage her.” With that, Driscoll turned.
My heart pounded. Blood slammed up my neck and practically rattled in my skull.
I didn’t even have the time to scream at Driscoll as he turned, closed the door, and walked away.
It was over.
I was back in the hotel room. I mean damn, I was actually back.
Jake didn’t linger. With a few snapped comments at me to stay put, he left. As he closed the door behind him, I saw a certain glint in his eye. Maybe James had fallen far from the family tree when it came to his personality, but that look I recognized. It was the same damn stupid determined glare James would get when he was about to go do something stupid.
Jake had already made me lock my door. Now I stood there a meter or so back from it, my thumb crammed in my mouth, my nail practically chewed down to the bone as I tried to tell myself this wouldn’t end in tears.
“Fat chance, Audrey,” I muttered to myself, every word breathy with defeat. “It’s already ended in tears.”
A fact that was more than evidenced as a single tear trickled down my cheek.
My fear for James was doubling by the second. It formed this ugly, great big knot in my gut that felt as if I’d been stupid enough to swallow a cargo ship anchor. As I took several heavy steps toward the bed, it felt like someone had robbed me of the ability to move. I reached it and flopped down. My gaze didn’t even tick toward the pillow. Why bother? I very much was not going to get any sleep tonight. Thoughts were chasing themselves around my head like bullets going after bad guys. And in this circumstance, Driscoll was very much the bad guy.
“We underestimated him, didn’t we? I underestimated him,” I concluded with the kind of sigh that made it feel as if someone had reached down my throat and punctured a lung with a nail. I felt so damn heavy with not just fatigue, but itching fear and grief. If only I’d been smart enough not to follow Jake Grimsby here, then James wouldn’t have….
I brought up a hand and slapped myself on the cheek a little too hard. The ringing sound echoed through the room. “Pull yourself the hell together,” I snapped through clenched teeth. “There’s no one else who can save James now.”
On the face of it, that was a damn stupid sentence. Jake had already put his hand up to save James, and I’d seen Jake in action. Though all I wanted to do right now was be hard on the big, irritatingly beautiful spy, I couldn’t deny my memory. When Jake had saved us from our last adventure, he’d done so with the kind of skills that would make James Bond blush.
So I had every reason to hope that Jake would save James, get us out of the country, and put this sorry chapter behind us, right?
“Wrong.” I reached up a hand, flattened it against my cheek, and pressed in so hard, the tips of my fingers practically gouged out my eyes. I saw stars exploding over my vision like I’d just catapulted myself into lightspeed. “Everyone has underestimated Driscoll. He’s not the kind of man—”
I heard footsteps out in the corridor. I might’ve been muttering to myself, but it had been in quiet, low, barely audible tones. The footsteps outside, however, were heavy. They instantly told me they came from the kind of massive man who couldn’t stifle his movements no matter what he did.
I didn’t once think it was Jake. My gaze darted toward the bathroom door. I was too far up to hope that I could jump out of the balcony window.
I pushed to my feet, and unlike the brute outside, I was light. I controlled my balance, pushing onto the tips of my toes and loosening my knees so my steps were muffled. I started to creep toward the bathroom. I had any number of potential weapons in there, from perfume that could momentarily blind someone if sprayed right in their face, to a curling iron that would be a wicked damn bat.
My head started to tick through the fight that would come – because my gut instinct told me it would come. No one—
I didn’t get a chance to finish that thought. I heard the sound of paper being slipped under wood. Jerking my head over my shoulder, I watched as somebody slipped an envelope under the door. Then they did the last thing I thought they would, and they knocked.
I stood there, frozen like some kind of pathetic woodland creature that had been caught in headlights.
When I didn’t respond, they knocked again.
I bit my lip so hard, I could’ve chewed them right off my face.
There was one more knock, then a low, deep growl that sounded as if it came from the chest of a man twice my size. “Audrey Diamond, we know you’re in there.”
Nerves exploded through me, and they were the kind that were more powerful than any nuclear weapon. The havoc they wrought on my gut, my chest, and my shaking arms could barely be described.
I was alone. While I’d taken on plenty of bad guys on my lonesome, one conclusion kept ringing in my ears. I’d underestimated Driscoll. He was not the kind of fool who would play around. He was the kind of evil bastard who would find something you cared about and dangle it in front of your face like a carrot to a donkey.
The guy cleared his throat. I mean crap, it sounded like an avalanche gathering speed as it blasted down the side of the hill to destroy everything in its path. “Audrey Diamond, we know you’re in there. Open the door. Count Driscoll has a proposal.”
I tried to think of what James would do if he was here. Grab me by the arm, pull me to the balcony, and try to jump off, no doubt. Or maybe he’d just shove me protectively to the side as he dealt with the guy on his own.
No. Jake would do that. James would rely on me. We’d worked together enough to know that we were always better off in dangerous situations when we cooperated.
That led to one uncomfortable thought – while I might be able to get rid of this goon, Driscoll would still have James. There was only one thing I could do, wasn’t there?
Wincing as if someone had slapped me 10 times, I closed my eyes, drove a breath through my teeth, then walked over to the envelope. I made no attempt to hide the sound of my footfall. I picked up the envelope. Shivering, I opened it. And there inside was a photo of James tied to a chair, his face so badly beaten, he was barely recognizable.
I couldn’t describe what that image did to me. The part of my brain responsible for language – for thinking, reasoning, and reminding me I was more than just instinct – shut down.
Pulses of dread slammed through my chest, ricocheted up my back, and shook me to my core.
“Open the door, Audrey Diamond,” the guy outside said. He had the kind of patient tone that was all an act. You know what I’m talking about. Big, angry assholes who never think twice about relying on violence always have the same damn voice. It’s one that promises you they are perpetually on a cliff and all they need is a single reason to jump and take you with them.
I didn’t dry my tears. I let them freely wash down my face as I reached forward and placed a hand on the first lock. I slid it to the side.
There was another lock. Before I opened it, I finally brought up a shaking hand and wiped away my tears. As hard as it was, I had to paint an expression of indifference over my face.
As soon as I opened this door, it would be on. It would be me, my intelligence, my luck, and my desire to get James back versus the Count. Jake had already made it clear that the Count pretty much owned this city. If I fell afoul of the law, he’d locked me up, and God knows when or if I’d get out. The only way to win this would be to defeat him on his own terms. I’d find the papers and secure his diamond, then I’d shove them both down his throat as I broke James out. And that was a goddamn promise.
I think I’d never forget the specific way the door creaked as I opened it. It sounded like a crypt being thrust open for the first time in several hundred years. And hey, that was about on the mark, because as the door swung open and I saw the biggest frigging guy I’d encountered this side of pro wrestling, the sense I got off him was one of death. From his perpetually bruised knuckles, to his barrel chest, to his broken nose, to the brutal glint in his eye, you wouldn’t need a psychologist to conclude that this fellow was a right-off. I should just stick him in prison and throw away the key.
I didn’t have a handy prison on me, though, and I sure as shit didn’t have the muscles or gall to try lock this guy away. So I just opened the door, pushing it with the tips of my fingers as I took several steps back. The open envelope with the photo of James inside was by my feet. I made no attempt to pick it up. I crossed my arms. Thank God being pissed off was an ingrained move for me. My arms didn’t shake as I secured them in front of my chest. And somehow, I kept my expression even, too. “Here with an offer from the Count, are you?” I asked as if this was a normal meeting and I had midnight hostage discussions with ex-wrestlers all the time.
The guy walked in. Then he closed the door in perhaps the creepiest way he possibly could have. He caught it in one big bear-like hand and slowly closed it with two knuckles pressing against the handle. The hinges creaked, and by God did they sound like far-off screams.
He looked at me the whole time, and though all my fear wanted to do was see me run the hell away, I held the hell on, tipped my chin back, and stared at him like an imperious British principal challenging a wayward pupil. “You sure this couldn’t have waited till the morning?”
He chuckled. Darkly. And damn, he was good at giving dark chuckles. Maybe he’d swallowed the Devil himself and the prick was currently chuckling up from the depths of this man’s twisted soul.
All poetic thoughts ended as he took another step forward. He reached out, and he clamped a hand on my shoulder.
I froze. It felt like every muscle contracted to the point of springs ready to explode. Somehow, I didn’t flinch. “This is where you tell me what he wants, right? Let me stop you right there. He wants the Verini Papers and the red diamond. And he wants me to find them. Only if I find them will he let James go.” Somehow, I kept my voice even on James’ name. I didn’t let my expression crumple, either. Because bullshit would Driscoll let James go. I wasn’t some idiot damsel out of an adventure film, thank you very much. I understood how this world worked. Men like Driscoll had no honor. Hell, he probably had no idea what the word meant. If – or when – I found the diamond, both James and I would be dead.
The guy patted my shoulder. It felt like being struck repeatedly by a bat.
Though I could have easily buckled under the force of the move, I shored up my shoulder, clenched my teeth, and tried for a you-know-very-well-I’m-pissed-off smile. My lips became so stiff, you could have used them to bridge the Pacific. “Let’s cut to the chase. I got the Count’s miniature portrait. I went to the clock tower,” I added, even though it was technically admitting to a crime. “Why don’t we head back to the clock tower now? I’m relatively certain the papers are there. They’ll lead us to the diamond.”
The guy finally removed his heavy hand from my shoulder, took a step back, and nodded as he looked me up and down. The guy wasn’t being a letch. Nope. He was doing something a lot creepier than that. He was looking at me as if he approved. “Count said you were smart. Now come on.”
He led me to the door. He opened it, and he strode out, his footfall even heavier than before. He wasn’t making any attempt to hide the fact he was here leading me from my room in the dead of the night – which told me everything I needed to know about this particular establishment. It, like everything else in town, was wholly under the thumb of the Count.
Though all my thoughts centered on breaking James free, a few were left over to appreciate just how much this city had suffered under the Count’s diabolical rule. The bastard deserved to be locked in prison for the rest of his natural frigging life. And I would be the woman to throw him there. Brave thoughts, ha? Pretty stupid, too, considering as I walked out of the door beside that big brute, it would be clear to anyone that I was the prisoner here, not the Count.
Things would change.
My fear at seeing this massive bastard creepily walk into my room was starting to subside. In its place, a deep-bellied rage started to billow.
Fortunately I hadn’t changed my clothes when I’d gotten back to my room. That was about the only thing I could be thankful for. As that massive brick wall of a man drove me back to the clock tower, some of my anger and bravado started to waver. It wasn’t just that the car was armored and so thick, you could scream and someone right next to the car wouldn’t hear. It was that, as we parked outside of the clock tower, he went around to the back, slung a holster over his shoulders, and packed two heavy-barreled guns inside.
I really doubted he thought we’d face zombies in the clock tower. Nope – both those guns were for me. They were timely warnings that despite my brave thoughts, I was Driscoll’s toy now.
“Let’s get this done,” I growled. Even if the least resistance I could show right now was a strident, pissed-off tone, I would use it. I wouldn’t let this bastard think he had me, even though he very much did.
Far from breaking into the clock tower, the guy had the key.
We strode into the bottom floor. The first thing I noted was footprints through the dust. When I’d entered, I’d been very careful not to leave any evidence. As my gaze darted across the footprints, I recognized them as Jake’s.
Maybe I was just old school, but to me, spying and searching for treasure was just as much about running around and shooting people as it was about being diligent and secretive.
Apparently I was on my own, because this guy had no intention of being secretive.
As he walked past a display, he reached out a hand, locked his beefy fingers on an old, dust-covered dome clock, and pushed it right over.
I gasped as it shattered against the floor.
“Pretty, but sure down break easily, ha?” the guy commented.
I didn’t need him to explain what that particular comment meant.
Then again, he clearly wasn’t the kind for subtlety, because he continued with a growl, “That’ll be just like you. You try anything, you won’t be able to try anything a second time,” he threatened ineloquently.
I did not gulp, even though now was exactly the time to show fear. If that guy pushed me over casually, I wouldn’t shatter, but I sure as hell would break something.
… But would that stop me from disabling this brute and getting the upper hand on the Count? Hell no.
We took that long, rickety staircase up to the clock face. The guy strode behind me, and it scared the living daylights out of me. With his massive, heavy body, the staircase quivered as if a Titan was jogging up it.
Though all I wanted to do was mutter at the guy that I doubted the staircase could carry both our weights at the same time, as soon as I opened my mouth, he growled again, snapping at me to hurry.
We reached the top of the clock tower.
For some reason, it was even more beautiful than the last time I’d been here, and that had been less than 45 minutes ago. There was something about the mechanism, the little light making it through the clock face, and the sheer antique feel of the place. For a few split seconds, I forgot where I was, who exactly was behind me, and why I was doing this.
“Find the clue. Find it now.” The guy was one hell of a motivational speaker. Because not only did he growl those words, but he actually brought up a fist and smashed into his other hand. You’d be right in thinking such a move was comical – well, you’d be current in assuming that if this guy didn’t have the kind of body that could smash through a frigging wall.
Clenching my teeth and letting a sigh echo out of them, I pushed forward.
“Okay,” I muttered to myself under my breath. “You almost found the papers before.” My gaze ticked back up to the location that corresponded to the coordinates in the miniature portrait. For a second, I let myself think I still didn’t have a way to get up there. Then the guy gave a gruff growl.
Before he could demand I hurry, I pushed a hand up with stiff authority. “I think it’s up there. I can’t—” I began, about to tell him I certainly didn’t have the height or agility to get up there.
The guy strode forward. He turned around, patted his gun pointedly to indicate this was not an opportunity for me to run, then settled his hands on the massive clock hands. He started to climb them. Yeah, sure, they were made out of reinforced steel, but this guy was a small bear. Sorry, a large one. As he climbed the clock hands, they groaned like an iceberg getting ready to split. His body blocked out the little light coming in through the semi-opaque white face. It sent deeper shadows dancing through the room.
“Where exactly is it?” he growled as, despite his size, he showed the kind of agility that allowed him to reach a massive hand out from one of the clock hands as he held on with his other arm.
I took a step back. My foot pushed against an old floorboard, and it groaned loudly.
It wasn’t the only thing that groaned. The guy darted his head around and stared at me through narrowed, vicious pupils. “You make a run for it, I’ll just chase you down, and I’ll make sure you get the picture that running,” he snarled, “ain’t good for your knees.”
I slowly put my hands up. “I’m just getting a better look. Reach around with your hand – can you feel any hidden compartments?”
The guy was not gentle. He slammed a hand on the frosted glass and started to push at it.
I winced. Awesome. This was exactly not the kind of fellow you took to historic sites. Unless you wanted to ransack them, that is.
He kept prying, then growled again. “Nothing.”
I scrunched my lips in. If I was some pissed off princess hiding clues that would lead you to one of the largest red diamonds in the world, where would I hide them?
In plain sight.
It would be the sweetest revenge of all.
I took another step back, this one a lot faster, the floorboards beneath me practically screeching.
The guy didn’t even have a chance to growl.
“You have a light on you, don’t you?” I said excitedly.
Still holding on with one arm, he shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He switched on the light.
“Shine it on the section of glass just to your side. Is there writing in the glass?”
He did as he was told.
Even from here I could see as the light shifted over the glass.
There was writing. And I had just found the Verini Papers. Maybe once upon a time they’d been actual papers, but along the line, someone had hidden them in plain frigging site. They were faintly scrawled into the glass pane.
One clue down, another to go. It was time to find the red diamond, shove it down the frigging Count’s throat, and end this. First? I’d have to divest myself of one big, violent idiot guard. No trouble – I’d done it before. As I curled my hands into fists, I promised I would do it again.
So this was it. I now had a plan. A particularly risky one. All I had to do was ditch this guy and save the day. Which should be easy as pie considering he looked as if he could – and did – wrestle polar bears.
The guy made a satisfied grunt – one his brick throat seemed perfect for. It shuddered like a bellows as he shoved a hand into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and started to record footage of the writing.
My gut kicked. This guy clearly wasn’t your average goon. He looked like he ate your average goon for breakfast. Cannibalism aside, my primary concern was that he was going to send that straight to the Count, and any bargaining chip I might’ve had would die here and now.
My gaze locked on his two sidearms. My mind started to calculate on fast forward how quickly I could get out of here and do a runner. But as soon as I so much took a step backward and angled my head toward the stairs, the guy whipped his free hand down and rested it over one of his guns. “Try anything—” he said, not bothering to follow up with a specific threat. He didn’t need to. With arms like that, his mere presence was a continuous warning about the potential health impacts of screwing with him.
I put my hands up slowly. “Sorry, I was just readjusting my position to read the writing. What does it say, anyway?”
“It’s irrelevant to you.”
I didn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that this goon had a large enough vocabulary to use the word irrelevant. I wasn’t about to challenge him to Scrabble. I did try for a placid smile. “I really doubt it says that. And I’m pretty sure it’s not irrelevant to me. Because I doubt,” I said, letting my voice drop with a note of authority I had earned over the past few months, “that it leads straight to the red diamond. You’ll still need me to find the next clue. Am I right?”
The guy finished taking footage, then jumped down. He fell a fair distance, but that didn’t matter to his beefcake form. It sure as shit mattered to the floor. Come on, I’d already spent a long time explaining how rickety and old this clock tower was. The last thing it needed was a massive action man bouncing around it like a frigging pinball.
As if to prove that fact, the floor beneath him gave a particularly unpleasant creak. Move over old bone, this sounded like a whole forest of trees about to succumb to a gang of unruly lumberjacks.
Me going for his gun was one thing – a stupid thing. Trying to run was equally as dumb. But as I shifted my weight back and realized the floorboards beneath me didn’t creak like an impending forest massacre, I realized there was a much safer option available to me.
The guy didn’t flip his phone around and show me the photo. Instead, a pronounced frown marched across his lips as he read what was on the screen. I was surprised his phone had high enough resolution to pick up the writing in this faint light. Obviously the Count didn’t scrimp when it came to giving his goons the best gear.
“What does it say?” I angled toward him again.
“I told you, it’s irrelevant to you,” he snapped as he shoved his phone back in his pocket after typing something on the screen.
He would have just sent the footage to the Count. Great.
“You sure you got everything?” I asked in the kind of irritating goody-two-shoes voice that had gotten many a bookworm a bloody nose over the years. I obviously let my gaze flick back to the glass. “I’m sure there’s more,” I said flatly.
“The Count can be the judge of that.”
I snorted, and I made sure it was as derisive as it could be.
If this guy hadn’t already wanted to punch me, he sure as hell would now. Hell, I wanted to punch me. I settled for giving a little girly shrug. “The Count doesn’t strike me as a particularly patient man. If you take me all the way back to the castle without thoroughly checking for clues, only to find out that the diamond’s somewhere nearby, I really doubt he’d be pleased.”
The guy snorted. I could see his expression perfectly in a thin slice of moonlight making it in through a transparent section of glass.
It showed me the guy wasn’t about to budge.
Dammit. I’d have to reevaluate my plan. Not only was this guy not your average goon – he could see right through me.
Until his phone beeped.
He grabbed it out of his pocket and quickly read a text message. The guy might’ve been good at hiding what he was thinking, but I caught the corners of his lips curling into the slightest frown.
With my hands still up, I took several steps up to him. I made sure they were slow and non-threatening. He still darted his gaze up and locked it on me like the equivalent of a computerized targeting system. “I didn’t say you could come closer.”
“No, but you did bring me here to find the red diamond. So what do you say we do that?”
His lip twitched up. “You think it’s here?”
I scrunched my lips together, putting a lot of effort into it, knowing that I had to try hard in order to pull off this act. Because yeah, it was an act. I very much doubted the red diamond would be here. Nobody crammed all their clues together in one place.
I still shrugged convincingly. “I’d say it’s close by. And I’d say that,” I nodded up at the glass pane where the writing was, “that’s not the last clue in this room. Why don’t you give me a leg up?”
He took one look at my figure, turned, then climbed back up the clock mechanism.
Asshole, I thought as I nonetheless smiled.
I looked down at the floorboards beneath him. The same floorboards this idiot would presumably jump back down on once he realized I was lying and there were no more clues in this room.
The same floorboards, to be exact, that already had hairline fissures running through them.
Making a quick calculation, I took a quiet step back then another. It brought me over the sturdiest section of the floor.
“Can you find anything?” I asked in a singsong tone.
That was all it took. The guy growled. “You’re screwing with me, aren’t you?”
“Why would I do that? You have two guns.” I said the word guns as if they were about as scary as Teddy bears.
Without another word, he jumped down.
He was all menacing, for half a second until the power of his fall cracked the floorboards.
I’d never forget the sound of it. The way it echoed through the room was like the sound of a far-off thunderstorm in a parched desert.
And hey, I was the equivalent of a parched desert – it’s just I didn’t need water right now, only an opportunity.
It came as the guy’s eyes boggled. He didn’t move fast enough, though, and he couldn’t throw himself away from the floorboards before they could crack completely.
But he didn’t fall all the way. The bastard managed to grab hold of the edge of the floor just as chunks of wood hailed around him.
He let out an unholy growl that would make any demon run for cover.
I jolted backward, flattening myself against the wall, knowing that in old buildings like this, the floors around the walls were usually reinforced.
More floorboards gave way, but unfortunately, the section he was holding onto remained steady and intact.
The guy might look as if he weighed as much as a small minivan, but that didn’t stop him from doing a chin up.
The side of his ghastly face pulling over the lip of the floor was like watching a snake slither out of the grass.
“Give me a hand,” he snarled.
“Okay.” I hadn’t lost my mind. I jolted forward, got down on my knees, balled a hand into a fist, and smashed it into the floorboard he was holding onto. There was a crack. I made it bigger.
“You—” he began.
He never got the chance to finish.
The floor cracked, and he fell.
I squeezed my eyes closed, jolted back, and crammed a hand over my mouth until I heard his body thud onto the floor below.
“Come on, Audrey, move. Move, you idiot.” I pulled myself up. Shakily, I walked around the edge of the room. I didn’t head straight to the clock face, even though I hadn’t read the writing yet. Instead, I reached the stairs, checked them and recheck them for stability, then climbed down them with a white-knuckled grip on the balustrade.
It didn’t take me long to find the guy. Fortunately, he wasn’t a pile of squished blood and bone splattered over the wood.
But just as fortunately, he was down. I approached him warily. When he didn’t snarl or casually shoot me, I checked his vitals. The guy was alive, though he was out for the count.
I checked his pockets.
I wasn’t stupid enough to grab his guns, though it was tempting. This picturesque city was turning out to be more dangerous than some war-torn death trap.
Still, I knew my limitations. I also technically knew the law, and it hadn’t changed. While Driscoll’s men flaunted it and walked around with guns all the time, I would be a different case.
Still, I didn’t leave the guy empty-handed. I grabbed his phone.
Fortunately, it was still unlocked and the fall hadn’t broken it.
I quickly scrolled to the message he’d sent to the Count. I accessed the picture of the clock tower.
And there was the final clue.
I unashamedly let out a little gasp. You see, I was wrong. Tilting my head back and staring up at the clock tower above, I realized my clue instincts had been way off the mark.
The red diamond – it was here. I hadn't lied to that guy after all.
The diamond was now within my grasp. As soon as I set my hot little hands on it, I’d have a chance of ending this, finding James, and getting the hell out of here.
I was done with treasure hunting.
But it wasn’t done with me.