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"I don't normally make a habit of hiring thieves as security specialists." Lucy Sharpe met the cold blue gaze of a man she'd never imagined would return to the Bullet Catchers after she'd discharged him under a cloud of suspicion.
"Habits can be broken." Constantine Xenakis strode across the library and dropped into an antique chair that most men avoided, but his long, rugged body dominated the dainty seat, completely at ease. "Kind of like rules. And locks."
"Dan Gallagher mentioned you were as confident as ever."
"As I recall, that's a big plus for this job." A flicker of a smile softened his hardened expression.
"It helps," Lucy agreed. "First of all, thank you again for your assist on the kidnapping in Miami. Helping to find that piece of evidence was key and helped to save several people's lives, including Dan's son. I'm very grateful for that."
His smile deepened to show the contrast of white teeth against tanned olive skin. "I had to get creative to find a way back into this mansion, Luce."
"You could have called." She nodded to the BlackBerry on her desk. "The number hasn't changed in six years."
"As if you'd take my call."
In fact, she might have. "I tried to find you after the truth came out on that diamond drop, Con. You were exonerated and I wanted to tell you that I was wrong."
"You didn't try very hard, then because you can find anyone, anywhere, no matter how deep underground they go."
"True," she conceded. "But by then you'd already taken a new career path, and I didn't like it. I still don't."
"Neither do I," he said quietly. "That's why I'm here."
She lifted a brow. "You've grown a conscience after half a dozen years of helping yourself to corporate secrets, priceless jewels, and countless works of art?"
He bristled and she knew she'd hit his weak spot. "Let's get this straight. I didn't help myself to anything. I have never kept anything I've stolen. I have worked as a middleman between collectors with a lot of money, and the people and places who have things they want."
Lucy chuckled. "I've heard euphemisms for stealing before, but that one is in a league of its own."
"Think what you want, Lucy, but I don't want the stuff I've stolen. I've simply used the talents I was born with skills I unfortunately honed too well as a teenager."
"You haven't been a teenager for twenty years."
"And as you recall," he continued, his voice low and deliberate, "I found that people assumed that because I had certain abilities, I automatically used them."
Definitely his weak spot. That would make the assignment, if she chose to offer it, even more challenging. "I assumed you helped yourself to diamonds because they were missing under your watch and you made no effort to dissuade me of that belief."
For the first time, he shifted his muscular frame in the undersized chair. "You hired me, Luce. Don't you trust your own judgment? Did I have to come in here and plead my case, or is the client always right?"
"If you wanted to stay a Bullet Catcher badly enough, it would have been a smart move." Instead he'd tested her, and they'd both lost. "And, no, the client is not always right. And neither am I. I have an open mind and am a reasonable woman, Con. There was no need for you to disappear and become a professional thief. You could have been protecting those things instead of stealing them."
"I made my choice, Lucy," he said simply. "And now I am here to unmake it."
"Dan told me you're serious about becoming a Bullet Catcher and I trust his judgment," she said. "And, I admit, the idea intrigues me. But only if I understand why, so that I can believe this sudden change of heart is real."
"It's real, and it's not sudden. The impetus was the case in Miami last month, when I saw one of your men in action."
"Dan Gallagher is one of the best."
"For good reason. So, I decided if I was going to steal anything worthwhile..." Humor glinted. "It should be his job."
She almost laughed at the idea that anyone could replace the man who'd been her right hand for the last five years. The man who she was already wooing to temporarily fill her chair when her baby arrived in six months. "That would be some steal."
"Let's put it this way. I don't do things halfway. If I work for you, I'd want to be the man you call one of your best." The conviction in his voice erased any concerns that the Con Man was doing a job on her.
A few seconds crawled by, punctuated by the pendulum swing of an antique grandfather clock across the room. Finally, without taking her eyes from his, she circled the writing table, settled in her chair, and reached for the dossier she'd been reading before he arrived. She couldn't go one more day without fulfilling this client's request, and the perfect man for the job was right in front of her.
"The assignment is tough, even for a seasoned Bullet Catcher." She handed him the file. "I need a diver."
"My time as a SEAL was brief, but I'm certified to dive."
"And I need a thief."
He lifted his gaze from the paperwork. "Excuse me?"
"Or someone who would know how to spot one." When he nodded, she continued. "The Bullet Catcher client is Judd Paxton. Are you familiar with him?"
"Of course. Paxton Treasures is the most successful underwater salvage company in the world. But no one's diving in November."
"Yes, actually, someone is. Paxton is running a highly confidential dive about ten miles off the east coast of Florida that isn't an official salvage effort."
He frowned. "You mean it's not leased or claimed with the state?"
"So there's no state rep on board cataloging everything they recover so Florida can suck its twenty percent of the potential bounty? That makes it a lot easier to sell anything recovered for full profit on the black market."
His knowledge of the inner workings of the salvage industry was another point in his favor, even if it was gleaned from the wrong kind of experience.
"Judd's not out to cheat the state or anyone out of money," she assured him. "He has a sponsor who wants to be the exclusive buyer for any treasure recovered on the dive, and that sponsor has insisted that the dive be kept secret, until they can confirm exactly what they've found. Evidently it will rock the salvage world, and when word gets out the area will be pounced on by poachers or, worse, pirates."
He looked intrigued. "What is it?"
"Are you familiar with the legend of the ship called El Falcone?"
"Yes," he said with a soft laugh. "I'm also familiar with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It's folklore, Lucy."
"Well, Mr. Paxton doesn't happen to agree with you," she replied. "The folklore of an unregistered ship that carried treasures from Havana to Lisbon would become fact if he is able to prove that's what he's found."
Con sifted through a few pages in the file, obviously unconvinced. "There's no manifest on record of a ship that wasn't registered, so this is pure speculation."
"The entire business of treasure hunting is speculative, but evidently some paperwork does exist, in various bits and pieces, and some of those are in the hands of Mr. Paxton's sponsor. The dive job is so confidential, I might add, that the crew and divers don't know what wreck they're salvaging."
He flipped the page, read some names. "Then why are they out freezing their backsides off, diving in November?"
"Because Paxton's paying a fortune. So, they're abiding by a no cell phone, no Internet access rule while on board. Since several of the Paxton ships were ambushed last season by well-organized thieves, the divers have been told the secrecy is for their safety."
He nodded. "That makes sense. So what's the assignment, protection from the potential pirates?"
"Not exactly. The threat, Judd thinks, is closer. They've recovered quite a few items already, and some are missing."
"Oh." His fingers rested on the diver and crew list. "So there's a thief on board one of the crew or divers."
"It would appear so, but it's more complex than that," she said. "In Paxton's opinion, just as worrisome as someone helping himself to a few gold coins is a leak to the outside world when something more substantive is recovered. There are a few items in particular that are believed to have been on board El Falcone."
"What are they?"
"A pair of gold scepters topped with matching diamonds, made for the king and queen of Portugal on the occasion of their marriage in 1862. And not just any diamonds the Bombay Blues, two of the most valuable blue diamonds ever mined in India."
He smiled, shaking his head. "That tale's been going around the art world for years. The Bombay Blues don't exist."
"Whether or not they exist doesn't matter. Our job isn't to find them," she reminded him. "It's our job to get on the boat and identify the thief, and if there is a leak, stop it."
He acknowledged that with a tilt of his head. "Flynn Paxton is the manager of the dive," he noted. "A relative?"
"Stepson. Evidently they have a contentious relationship and Judd is trying to smooth things out by letting him manage a dive. You'll go undercover as a new diver, infiltrate the crew, stop whoever has the sticky fingers, and figure out if someone's getting word to the outside world. No one, not even Flynn, will know your real reason for being there."
"Does Flynn know about El Falcone?"
"No one does."
"So Judd doesn't even trust his own stepson. Interesting." Con shifted through the file that contained in-depth backgrounds of the six divers, conservator, and crew on board the Gold Digger, then looked up at her. "Anything else?"
"Just check in daily. If you uncover anything or anyone suspicious at all, I want to know immediately. That day, that hour. We'll strategize together how to handle it."
"And remember that you're not on your own." She leaned forward, pulling his attention. "Bullet Catchers, even on individual assignments, work as a team. They might not be there with you, but we're just a phone call away, giving you access to all my resources, my information, my people."
"Sounds good. When do I start?"
"Immediately. My assistant, Avery, will arrange for you to have a bodyguard's license to carry concealed, and get you a satellite phone and a laptop, both programmed to access this office with the press of one button or a keystroke. One of the Bullet Catcher jets is ready to take you home so you can pick up whatever you need, then fly you to the port where you'll be taken out to the Paxton boat."
She picked up her BlackBerry to check messages, clicking through what came in during the meeting. "Oh, and Con?"
He closed the file. "Don't tell me. One mistake and I'm out again?"
"And you'll go straight to the authorities, who I believe are looking for you in three states."
"Four." He shot her a smile. "But who's counting?"
"I am." She held up one finger, then lowered it to point directly at him. "You get one chance, Con. That's it. Avoid trouble, stay in constant contact, and do the job exactly as a Bullet Catcher would."
She tilted her head to the side. "Those four states will never have heard of you, and you can arm wrestle Dan for his job."
"Tell him to lift weights." He gave her a cocky wink. "Thanks, Luce."
She was still looking at the empty doorway after he left, when Jack turned the corner and stepped into her line of vision.
"What are you staring at, Lucinda?" he asked, leaning against the jamb with his arms crossed and his smile aimed at her.
"The man I'm going to marry." She got up to meet him for an embrace, which was as tender as the kiss he added. "The father of this baby I'm carrying."
He tilted her chin to look into her eyes. "You're not going to change your mind, are you?"
She laughed. "Why would you even ask about that?"
"Because this..." He cupped her chin and scrutinized her face. "Is that very rare expression you wear when you're second-guessing yourself."
God, he knew her like no other man ever had. "Did you see the man who was just in here?"
"I saw someone leave, but I didn't talk to him. New client?"
"Really? You didn't mention you were hiring someone."
"I wasn't sure I would, until the moment I handed him the Paxton file."
"So you found the diver you wanted."
"I found the thief I wanted."
He inched back. "A thief?"
"Reformed. Or so he says. He's also a former Bullet Catcher, who I let go after some diamonds were missing from a delivery out of South Africa. He was eventually vindicated and cleared, but by the time that happened, he'd pretty much adopted the 'if you can't convince them you're innocent, then be guilty' mind-set, and went back to doing what he has an amazing gift for doing: taking stuff that doesn't belong to him."
Jack dropped on the sofa, studying her with a quizzical look. "So you brought him on board for just this job?"
"We'll see. He wants more. He wants Dan's job."
That got a soft hoot. "Not that I wouldn't be happy to see my old rival for your affections gone, but I seriously doubt Gallagher's going anywhere but in that chair..." He pointed to her desk. "At least for the first few weeks of Baby Culver's life."
"I'm still figuring that out," she said.
He reached for her and eased her next to him, a familiar and comfortable hand on her still-flat belly. "How is my boy, by the way?"
"She's fine. I'm not going to stop working, Jack," she said, a vague warning in her voice.
He just laughed. "No more than the earth will stop revolving. But you are going to have to restructure to some degree."
To some degree. "To the degree where I hire thieves to protect gold and diamonds?"
"Oh, come on, Luce. That's exactly why you did it: to test his loyalty and character."
"You know me too well." She nuzzled closer to him, her worries evaporating.
"So what happens if he fails?"
"I could lose one of my most important clients."
And, worse, she'd lose the chance to see Con Xenakis become the man he wanted to be.
The treasure chest. The recovery room. The booty box. The gold hold.
No matter what the crew nicknamed the dive ship's lab, where recovered treasure was bathed in acid and ash, tagged and numbered, then electrolyzed to its original glory, the place was fairly easy to break into.
But even if it hadn't been, Lizzie Dare would have made a go of it tonight.
Her watch alarm vibrated at three a.m., when the hundred-and-twenty-foot vessel was silent but for the hum of the generators. The other divers and the captain and crew were asleep in their cabins.
Secure in the fact that Flynn Paxton was on his boat anchored a hundred and fifty feet away, and certain that by tomorrow she'd never get her hands on the beaded silver chain that had been recovered that afternoon, she tiptoed barefoot out of her bunk.
Her feet soundless on the planks of teak of the narrow hallway of the quarters deck, she barely breathed as she glanced up the stairs to the main deck, where all was dark and silent after a day of diving, searching, and celebrating the recovery. If she were caught now, her excuse would be needing air. But once she turned the corner and took the stairs below, she'd have a hard time explaining herself.
Pausing for a second, she pulled a dark hooded jersey around her, took a deep breath, and darted to the steps.
At the bottom, the generators were louder, the engines and electrical systems clunking softly. Grasping the key she'd taken from Charlotte's stateroom during the hoopla when one of the other divers had emerged from the sea holding the chain, she headed toward the lab. In the midst of the chaotic celebration, it had been easy to slip down to the conservator's stateroom and steal the key unnoticed. She'd return it tomorrow while Charlotte and Sam Gorman had breakfast, no one the wiser.
The metal hatch of the cleaning lab squeaked, making her cringe, then she entered to suck in a noseful of salty muriatic acid lingering in the air.
Inside it was dark, except for one wedge of pale moonlight through skinny horizontal slatted portholes. She didn't need much light. She'd been in the lab enough times to know exactly how the worktables were arranged and where the chain would be hanging on alligator clips in an electrolysis tank.
She took a few steps to the left, reached out to touch the table, then glided her hands to the row of tanks. From her jacket pocket she pulled out a latex glove, slipped it on, then dragged her fingertips over the thin metal bar over the stainless steel plate.
But there were no clips draped with a silver beaded chain.
Hadn't Charlotte started the electrolysis yet? She'd naturally done the initial cleaning that afternoon, and then she should have prepped the chain for electrolysis that would take up to twenty-four hours.
But the tanks weren't even on; there was no soft vibration of a low-volt current. So where had she put the chain?
Nitric baths, no doubt. Damn. There were beads on the chain and it wasn't all silver so Charlotte probably added a wash of nitric acid as an in-between step. Getting the chain out of a nitric solution would be much tougher.
But not impossible.
She pulled the other glove from her other pocket and headed to the closet-sized room at the opposite end of the lab, where the nitric acid baths were given to the treasure. They'd also found silver coins that day, and no doubt Charlotte had them each in an individual wash, the cups lined up along the worktable. She probably decided to do the necklace at the same time.
Lizzie slipped a pinpoint flashlight out of her pocket because a room with containers of nitric acid, even a five percent solution, was no place to accidentally knock something over in the dark.
Stepping deeper into the closet, she aimed the flashlight in the direction of the tiny worktable along one narrow wall and
The door slammed behind her the very instant one powerful arm encircled her whole body from behind. A warm hand smashed over her mouth, silencing her scream as the flashlight clunked to the floor.
She jerked one way, then the other, but she was no match for the mighty arms that immobilized her. She tried to see him, but all she could get was an eyeful of shoulder. Big shoulder.
No shoulder she'd seen on this boat before.
"Looking for something in particular?" His voice was a low, menacing rumble, sending shivers over her skin.
She jerked hard, grunting into his hand. "Met me mo!" The demand was smashed right back into her mouth.
"No can do, sweetheart." He punctuated that with a squeeze, forcing her body against his, her backside right up against his hips.
A whole different kind of white-hot terror seized her. In all her dive trips and salvage efforts, she'd never been on a ship that had been attacked by pirates. But on Paxton boats? Entirely possible. Probable, even.
She tried to swallow, tried to breathe, but he just pinned her tighter. She fought again, but he was rock solid and unyielding.
"Mwat do you want?"
"What do you want? is the question."
She tried to wrest away one more time, but it was fruitless. She forced herself to be very, very still despite the adrenaline coursing through her, fueling her fight.
Three or four interminable seconds rolled by, her heart whacking at her rib cage in triple time.
"Good girl," he said softly, the tone ominous enough to almost stop that beating completely. "This is a very bad room for a wrestling match."
Yes, it was. Unless you had gloves and long sleeves on. Did she dare? Only her face was vulnerable.
What was worse? A minor burn or...rape and murder?
"Now here's what we're going to do," he said, his mouth still pressed to her ear, his mighty grip strangling her whole body. "We're going to back out of this closet, very calmly and quietly, before you help yourself to a single item that doesn't belong to you. Then you'll pay for your misdeeds, and the punishment will be severe."
If he let go of either arm, she could grab a cup of acid and back toss it in his face. And scream like hell for help.
"Let's go," he said roughly, lifting her off the floor.
She had one finger free, her arm trapped under his. If she could just...close around his pinkie and yank.
His knuckle snapped and he loosened his grip just enough to free her arm. She stabbed straight for the row of tiny cups, seizing one in a gloved hand.
He jerked her backward but not before she tossed the contents of the cup over her shoulder. Instantly, he whipped them both to the right, hard enough that the acid splashed over the rim of the cup.
With a shriek, she flipped the whole cup just as he threw her to the ground, covering her body from the rain of acid.
"What the hell!" he grunted, writhing over her.
"Get off me!" She shoved at him, not knowing if any of the acid had touched her clothes, or his. "Get the hell off me, you bastard!"
She tried to scramble away, but he snagged her sweatshirt. "Take it off!" he insisted. "Now! Take it off!" He grabbed the zipper and started to rip.
"No!" She slammed her hands into his chest, just as she felt the air on her arm, where a hole in her hoodie suddenly appeared and grew, the acid on it centimeters from her skin.
"You'll burn! You have to take it off!" He jabbed at the shoulders, pushing the jacket over her, stripping the sleeves as he pulled her to her feet and ripped off the cotton tank top, leaving her entirely bare.
"Your pants! Hurry before you burn!" He seized the waistband of her sweats just as she saw two gaping holes widening over her thigh.
"Off!" he demanded, dragging them down over her hips and taking her underpants with them. In one more lightning move, he flung them away. "Water! Wet your skin!"
He pushed her to the sink and flipped the faucet on, the water shockingly cold on her arm. Then he tore his dark shirt over his head and ripped his jeans off, whipping his clothes into the same corner he'd thrown hers.
"More water," he said, pushing her closer to the sink and cupping his hands. "Give me your leg."
Whowas this man?
She lifted her leg and he started splashing handfuls of water over her thighs with one hand, and onto his shoulder with the other.
"Why the hell did you do that?" he demanded. "You could have blinded me."
"That was the idea. You attacked me."
He snorted softly, looking at her face. "I caught you stealing. Big difference." He lifted his own leg to the sink and started splashing.
"I was not " She grasped the side of the sink, adrenaline dumping through her like a straight shot of whiskey, her body rubbery and wobbly as she stared at the huge, dark, naked, furious stranger next to her.
"Who are you?"
"The new diver."
Oh, no. Oh, no.
"The new..." Her voice gave out under the force of his laser-beam glare. Instead, she looked down, at the dark nest between his legs, his manhood fully exposed, lying against the soaking wet thigh he held up to the sink.
The new diver.
Oh, please. This wasn't happening to her.
She finally managed to meet his sharp blue eyes again, her stomach flipping around like a hooked fish. "I thought you were going to rape me," she said quietly. "Or...worse."
He stopped splashing water long enough to drop his gaze over her body, as if he were...considering it.
"This isn't enough," he said gruffly, still studying her.
"What?" What the hell did that mean?
"We have to shower. Now. There could be droplets on your skin, and they'll burn. They might already be burning. Come on."
She hesitated only for a millisecond; he was right.
"In my cabin." He shoved her toward the door.
He really was the new diver. The one who was coming...tomorrow. The one who was going to sleep in the small cabin next to the lab because it was the only unoccupied bunk on the boat.
The new goddamn freaking diver. "I thought you were..."
"I know. Rapist. Killer. Pirate. I got the picture."
"It's only five percent nitric acid," she said as she led him through the shadowed lab.
"It'll still burn you. And scar." She turned to look over her shoulder. His gaze was trained directly on her bare bottom.
Flynn had told them they were getting a new diver. But he failed to tell them the new guy was tall, dark, and so far past handsome that he was in another time zone. And she'd tried to burn that face?
He nudged her into the hallway and the first cabin, then whipped open the door to the head, a typical combination toilet and shower in one fiberglass closet.
With one hand, he shoved her into the tiny area, lifting the showerhose off its hook as he flicked the water knob.
"You know what they say, don't you, Lizzie Dare?" He stepped inside, stealing every remaining inch of space with his big, bare body. He pulled the door firmly behind him and looked down at her with a dangerous gleam in his eye as he pointed the ice-cold spray right at her breasts. "Payback's a bitch." Copyright © 2009 by Roxanne St. Claire