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The blonde sauntered into view on the security monitor, looking like every erotic dream he'd ever hadsultry, seductive, sin-on-heels sensuous. Luke Moreno's pulse hitched, and a wild laugh rose in his throat. Oh, yeah. This woman was his fantasy, all right. His Delilah. His Mata Hari. His Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Too bad she was just as corrupt.
He watched, riveted, as she approached the glass display case cordoned off with velvet ropes. She played the elegant guest role to perfection, bending close to admire the primeval amber, the meticulously hammered gold. As if she'd never seen the ancient necklace before. As if she hadn't come here to steal it. As if she weren't setting him up to take the blameagain.
Damn her conniving soul.
"Who let her in here?" he demanded, still not pulling his eyes from the screen.
"Who?" Luke's partner in his security business, Antonio Flores, leaned across the crowded console toward the monitor.
"La americana. Sofia Mikhelson."
His partner raised one stocky arm, reached for the laptop nearby and tapped the keyboard to scroll down the names. "Mikhelson. Sofia. She's on the list. Part of the antiquities crowd."
"She wasn't on the list last night."
"We added a new batch this morning." Antonio leaned back in his chair and lifted his hands, palms out. "You know how it's been. We've had experts calling from all over the world. It's been a nightmare trying to vet them all."
Luke grunted. He couldn't argue that. It wasn't often a thousand-year-old necklace surfaced in a Spanish bank vaultespecially this necklace. The Gypsy's Revenge, coveted for centuries, shrouded in legends, haunted by an ancient cursea curse that condemned any non-Gypsy who touched it to die. An artifact so elusive, so priceless, so powerful that few experts even believed it existed until now.
But the necklace was real, all right, and sitting in that casea dazzling gold collar inscribed with ancient symbols, inlaid with multi-hued amber, adorned with miniature bells. And its discovery had ignited a firestorm of controversyformer Nazi war loot, Swiss banking connectionsan international scandal ready to explode. Now every antiquities expert on the planet had converged on the palace outside of Madrid demanding a close-up look.
But this woman hadn't come here to admire the necklace. His gaze hardened on the lush curves sheathed in the black satin gown, the gleam of her naked back, that slow, smoldering smile that still incinerated his nerves like lightning scorching parched earth.
No, she hadn't come here to view the necklace. Sofia Mikhelson was as deceptive as the forgeries she made. Exquisite, enthralling, alluringbut fake.
Anger whipped through his gut.
"The ceremony's about to start," he told Antonio, the raw heat making his voice clipped. "I'm going to check out the crowd. Keep your eye on that necklace."
A tense buzz rising in his ears at the thought of Sofia, he stalked from the brightly lit office and headed down the carpeted hallway past dark, massive portraits of centuries' worth of Spanish nobility as cameras winked from silk-lined walls.
It had taken him five years to salvage his reputation. Five years battling suspicions and accusations, fighting the arrogance of power, the tyranny of wealth.
And now he had everything riding on this ceremonyhis career as a security expert, his honor, his pride. This was his one chance to finally redeem himself, to prove himself to the world.
The muscles along his jaw bunched while resentment seared in his chest. He'd played the fool once with that woman. It had ended with his illusions shattered and his reputation destroyed. No way would he do it again.
No matter what she had planned.
He strode into the throne room, paused, then skipped his gaze across the crowd shimmering beneath the chandeliers, their tumult of languages muted by the thick Belgian rugs. He arrowed in on Sofia, poised just meters from the ancient necklace, and adrenaline rushed through his gut.
The game's on, querida. And he was going to win.
Keeping his eyes locked on that golden hair, he wove through the maze of celebrities and politicians, billionaires and pedigreed noblesall gathered to witness the historic moment when the Spanish government returned the long-lost necklace to the Roma people.
"Señoras y señores," the Duke of Zamora began at the podium. The crowd hushed, and Luke spared a glance at the royal Roma family now standing behind the necklace, palace guards posted discreetly to the side. "Es con gran honor y placer que les presento "
Luke ignored the duke's welcome and swung his gaze back to Sofia. With a few long strides, he closed the distance between them, then positioned himself slightly behind her, close enough to watch her inhale, to catch any movements she made.
Too close. Before he could stop it, his gaze dipped and traced the curve of her back, the feminine swell of her hips. And those unwanted memories came blasting backthe heat of her lips, the salt of her skin, that small, provocative hitch in her breath when her eyes turned to molten green.
The quick pull in his groin caught him off guard. He grimaced, tugged at his tuxedo collar, and forced his gaze back up. So his body still responded to her. That just proved that morals had nothing to do with sex.
Because no way did this woman have a conscience.
He made a rough, low sound of disgust, and she turned her head. Her eyes met his and widened on a flash of surprise. As if she hadn't expected him here. Or she didn't think he'd have the nerve to confront her?
"Luke?" she whispered, sounding stunned.
He tipped his head. "Sofia." His voice came out deep, raw, graveled by five years of rage.
She blinked, then nibbled her lip, and he watched emotions parade through her gray-green eyesuncertainty, guilt, doubt.
Good. About time she started to feel nervous.
"I I didn't think you I mean, I thought you " She stopped, inhaled. "I mean, this is nice. I"
"Nice." He tried out the word, then bit back a bitter laugh.
"Yeah, I'll just bet it is."
Her lips closed. A flush crept up her cheeks, and her eyes flickered with a new emotion. Hurt? What did she have to feel wounded about? She'd come here to destroy him. Again.
It was a nice touch, though, making her look vulnerable. Innocent. Five years ago he would have fallen for it, too.
But then her chin rose, her soft lips firmed into a brittle smile, and once again she was the princess of the antiquities world, the premier expert on ancient amber. Lofty, composed, reservedexcept for that small nervous gesture as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
The corner of his mouth kicked up, and his gaze drilled into hers. Ah, querida. Never try to fool your former lover. He knew her too damned well.
She whirled back around, her spine suddenly rigid, and whispered to the short man beside her. Luke shifted his gaze to her escort, and everything inside him went still. Don Fernando Heredia. Sofia's patron. The man she'd trusted more than him.
Of course he'd be here. He would have planned this heist. Fitting task for a high-bred noble, a model of culture and wealth.
The small man turned to Luke, and their gazes locked. For an eternity neither moved, neither looked away, two old enemies mired in combat. But then don Fernando lifted his brows and tilted his head, the gesture aloof, politely condescend-ingexactly how a rich, powerful man would greet the Gypsy scum he'd accused of stealing his gems.
Luke's pulse drummed in slow, dull beats, and the edges of his vision dimmed. He curled his hands, aching to avenge the injustice, the prejudice, the futility of spending a lifetime battling his way out of poverty only to see his efforts destroyed.
But this wasn't the time. Not yet. Not here. He sucked in his breath, then squeezed it back out. He forced his shoulders down, flexed his fingers and pressed them to his thighs, beating back the humiliation, the fury, the shame. He unclenched his jaw and rocked back on his heels, willing his mind to clear and his pulse to ease. He couldn't afford to let his anger distract him.
Not with this much at stake.
Just then a movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and he jerked his gaze to the side. His pulse instantly sprinted again and he searched the crowd, but no one moved, nothing seemed out of place. The duke droned on at the podium. The royal Roma coupleofficial representatives of the Gypsy peoplewaited to receive the necklace. Their daughter, the princess, stood behind them. The guests listened and watched, their expectation mounting as the moment to remove the necklace from the case neared.
To see if the deadly curse would come truethat any non-Gypsy who touched it would die.
Luke waited a beat, then exhaled. Sofia and her patron had made him too damned jumpy. But something was about to happen; he could feel it. The hairs on the nape of his neck rose. Anticipation pulsed in the air. He ran his gaze over the guests, wary, alert.
Then suddenly, a man vaulted over the velvet ropes, his flushed face and wild eyes at odds with his formal tuxedo. "¡Que mueran los gitanos!" he shouted and whipped out a gun.
Death to the Gypsies? Luke's heart stalled as the man pointed the weapon at the royal couple. The stunned silence shattered with two sharp pops.
The couple fell. A woman screamed. Palace guards surged forward, their weapons drawn. More guns barked and the murderer dropped.
Chaos broke loose. Around Luke people panicked, screamed, scattered and shoved their way toward safety, all pretense of civility gone. Guards leaped to surround the stunned princess. Others raced to block the exits and protect the necklace, just as they'd been trained.
His own heart hammering, his pulse rocketing through his veins with a violent buzz, Luke spun back toward Sofia. Her patron still stood there, looking suitably shocked.
But Sofia was gone.
He swept his gaze through the frantic crowd. Where was she? Why hadn't she tried to steal the necklace? Unless the one on display was a fake
His stomach dipped. Oh, hell. Where had she gone?
Cursing his stupidity, he raced toward the door with the frenzied guests, shouldering them out of his way. Then he pushed ruthlessly through the bottleneck crowding the exit, paused and scanned the hall. He glanced right, then left, just as a blond woman rounded the corner and disappeared.
His pulse leaped, and he gave chase. She had several yards on him, but he was faster, especially with her tight gown and spiked heels impeding her pace. He bolted down the hall and sprinted around the corner just seconds after she did, catching up in a few long strides. Furious now, he grabbed her arm, jerked her around and shoved her against the wall.
"Where is it?" he demanded. He gripped her arms and leaned against her, blocking her in with his weight. Behind him several guards rushed past, their guns drawn and radios squawking, shouting instructions and commands.
"What? Where's what?" She struggled uselessly against him, her chest heaving, her eyes pools of panic and fear. "Luke, let go! That man the gun"
"The necklace. Where is it?" He tightened his hands and gave her a shake, and her eyes whipped back to his. "And I don't mean the fake."
"But it's " A flush stained her cheeks. Her breath rasped in uneven pants. Confusion edged out the fear in her eyes. "You know where it is. In the safe in the library, right where Antonio put it. Where else would it be?"
Antonio? He blinked, shook his head. What did his partner have to do with this? They'd never discussed the need for a decoy to fool potential thieves. This woman was just trying to distract him. And he didn't have time for these games. "Prove it."
Ignoring her protests, intent on finding that necklace before his career was destroyed, he dragged her down the hall, not caring that she had to jog to keep up with him. He towed her through a store room and detoured down another hallway, while questions spun through his brain. Who would want to kill the Roma royals? A terrorist? Or was their shooting just a distraction for the theft?
He stopped at an unmarked door, released her long enough to unlock it with his master key, then grabbed her bicep again. "Let's go."
The temperature dropped as they entered the oldest part of the palace, an area off limits to guestsa section the security cameras didn't reach. The musty air, water-stained ceilings and threadbare carpets reflected years of disuse and neglect.
But Luke knew every stone, every crack in this medieval fortress. He'd spent months memorizing the layout, checking for weak points, scouring the dungeon and ancient bolt-hole, making sure no terrorists could worm innever suspecting that the real danger would come from inside.
He stopped in front of the huge door leading to the library, its ornate carvings and inlaid panels layered with dust. Cautious now, aware that this could be a setup, he turned the knob, then kicked the massive door open. When nothing moved, he gave Sofia a short, sharp tug and pulled her inside.
He let go of her arm, closed the door, and scanned the room. The vaulted chamber looked empty, except for a few stray pieces of furniture and the cases of books.
"Which safe?" he asked, his skepticism rising. There were two antiquated wall safes in the room, neither secure enough for current use.
"Behind the painting. The one by the fireplace," she said. He strode over to a small lamp perched on a table and flicked it on, then turned toward the fireplace. The dim light threw shadows on the frescoed ceiling and illuminated the paintings on the walls.
"You mean the Pacheco?"
"So you know art."
He scowled. Did she have to sound so surprised? He'd left the slums of El Salobral a lifetime ago. "A thief's got to be able to identify the loot, right, Sofia?"
Her eyes flashed. "You would know."
He hissed out his breath in disbelief. "You're not still trying to pin that on me?"
"But you did steal it. Don Fernando showed me"
"Yeah, right." Disgusted, fighting back the futile rage that heated his blood, he crossed the room to the painting. There was no point trying to defend himself. She'd chosen to believe Don Fernando over him long ago.
But her disloyalty still rankled.
Anxious to end this farce, he turned his attention to the safe. He found the hinge in the gilded frame easily enough and swung the painting out from the wall. But when he examined the lockan old-fashioned disk tumblersuspicion again crawled through his gut. Why leave a priceless artifact in an unguarded safeone with a lock a beginner could crack? Nothing about this made sense.
Unless this was a trap. His unease mounting, he swiveled his gaze back to Sofia. She was rubbing her arms, scanning the room. From nerves or guilt?
"What's the combination?" he asked her.
"I don't know. I don't!" she protested when he shot her a dangerous look. "I just made the decoy. Ask Antonio. I brought it here early this evening, he swapped it for the original, and that was it."
"The hell he did."
"But he did." Her mouth sagged. "You don't think that I "
Damn right he did. Fed up now, he stalked back to her, moving too close, invading her space. Then he gripped her chin and tugged it up, forcing her eyes to his. "I wouldn't suggest lying to me, querida."
"I'm not lying," she gritted out. Her cheeks were flushed. Her nostrils flared. Outrage sparked in her eyes.
His gaze held hers. She didn't waver, didn't blink.
Five years ago he would have believed her. Then again, five years ago he would have crawled through fire for this woman.
He was a lot smarter now.
He admired her acting ability, though. She had that fervent indignation, that innocent sincerity part down pat.
Wondering how far she'd take this game, he stroked his thumb down her throat, tracing the path his mouth once took. Her eyes turned narrow and dark; her pulse quivered beneath his hand. He lowered his gaze to her lipsmoist, lush, temptingand heard that ragged hitch in her breath.
His own heart kicked in response.