Read an Excerpt
Washington, D.C., present day
"I loved your book."
Those words were music to any writer's ears, and Nell MacPherson never tired of hearing them. She beamed a smile at the little girl standing in front of her table. "I'm so glad you did."
She took the copy of It's All Good the little girl held out to her and opened it to the title page. Her reading and signing at Pages, the bookstoredown the street from her sister Piper's Georgetown apartmenthad run overtime. At one point, the line had spilled out into the street. The store's manager was thrilled, but Piperwho'd taken an extended morning break to attendhad glanced at her watch twice in the past fifteen minutes. She probably needed to head back to the office.
"What's your name?" Nell asked the little girl.
"Lissa. But I wish it was Ellie like the character in your book. Mommy says I look like her, but you do, too."
Lissa was right on both counts, Nell thought. They both had Eleanor Campbell MacPherson's long blond hair and blue eyes.
"Mommy and I did some research. You're Ellie's great-great-great " Lissa trailed off to glance up at her mother. "I forgot how many greats."
"Way too many," Nell said as she autographed the book. "I always say I'm Ellie and Angus's several-times-great-granddaughter."
"Did Ellie really draw all the pretty pictures for your story?"
"Yes. She was a talented artist. Every one of the illustrations came from her sketchbooks."
"And you live in her castle in New York," Lissa said.
"I grew up there, and I'm going back for a while to finish up another book." That hadn't been her original plan. The federal grant had given her a taste of what it was like to be totally independent, allowing her to travel across the country giving writing workshops to young children in inner city schools. For someone who'd been hovered over by a loving and overprotective family all her life, the past year had been a heady experienceone that she intended to build on.
But her sisters' recent adventures on the castle groundsleading to the discovery of part of Eleanor Campbell's long-missing dowryhad caused Nell to question her plan of finding an apartment in New York City and finishing her second book there. Each of her siblings had discovered one of Eleanor's sapphire earrings. So wasn't it Nell's turn to find the necklace? Not that anyone in her family had suggested it. They had assumed she was returning home to settle in and take the teaching job that nearby Huntleigh College had offered her. But a week ago an anonymous letter had been delivered to her while she was teaching her last set of workshops in Louisville. The sender had used those exact words: It's your turn. Nell had known then that she had to return to the castle and find the rest of Eleanor's sapphires.
"Are you going to fall in love and kiss him beneath the stone arch that Angus built for Ellie?"
Nell reined in her thoughts.
"Lissa." The pretty woman standing behind the little girl put a hand on her shoulder and sent Nell an apologetic smile. "Thank Ms. MacPherson for signing your book."
"Thank you, Ms. MacPherson."
"Thank you for coming today, Lissa." Nell leaned a little closer. "Lots of people have kissed their true loves beneath that stone arch. My eldest sister, Adair, has recently become engaged to a man she kissed there. Cam Sutherland, a CIA agent. He's very handsome. And my aunt Vi is going to marry Cam's boss." Then she pointed to Piper who was standing near the door. "See that pretty woman over there?"
"That's my other sister, Piper. She's a defense attorney here in D.C., and she just kissed her true love, FBI agent Duncan Sutherland, beneath the stone arch two weeks ago."
Lissa's eyes went wide. "And now they'll all live happily ever after, right?"
"That's the plan. In the meantime, my sister Adair and my aunt Vi are turning Castle MacPherson into a very popular place to fall in love and then have a wedding." She winked at the little girl. "When you're older and you find your true love, you might want to bring him up there."
"Can I, Mommy?" Lissa asked, a thrill in her voice.
"I don't see why not. But I can't see that happening for quite a while."
Lissa turned back to Nell. "What about you? Aren't you going to kiss your true love under the stones?"
"Someday," Nell said. But while her older sisters and her aunt might be ready for happy-ever-afters, Nell had much more she wanted to accomplish first. Finding Eleanor's sapphire necklace and finishing her second book were at the top of her list.
The instant Lissa's mother steered her daughter toward the checkout line, Piper crossed to Nell's table. "The Bronwell trial starts on Monday, and my boss is holding a press conference at five o'clock." Piper glanced at her watch. "I can treat you to a quick cup of coffee."
"No problem." Nell grabbed her purse and waved at the manager.
"You're great with the kids," Piper said. "They love talking to you about Eleanor and Angus."
She and Piper had nearly reached the door of the shop when a man rode his bike up over the curb and jumped off. A sense of deja vu gripped Nell even before he had entered the store and she had read Instant Delivery on the insignia over his shirt pocket. The anonymous letter she'd received in Louisville had also been hand delivered.
"I have a letter for Nell MacPherson. Is she still here?" He spoke in a loud voice, his gaze sweeping the room.
"I'm Nell MacPherson."
The relief on his face was instantaneous. "Glad I didn't miss you. I was supposed to get here half an hour ago. The traffic today is worse than usual. If you'll just sign here."
As she signed, Nell's mind raced ahead. She hadn't told anyone in her family about the first letter. They would have wanted her to come home to the castle immediately so they could protect her. Worse still, now that her two sisters were involved with agents from the CIA and the FBI, they would have sent someone to hover over her. And the number one person they would have in mind would be Reid Sutherland.
Nell intended to avoid that at all cost. She also intended to avert their expectation that she and Reid live happily ever after. Just because her two sisters would soon wed Reid's two brothers didn't mean she had to marry the last triplet. No way was she ready for that fairy-tale ending.
This whole year had been about demonstrating to them that she could take care of herself. She took a quick look at the envelope held out to her. It was one of those standard-letter-sized ones used for overnight deliveries. The only return address was for the Instant Delivery office. She accepted it and tucked it under her arm.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Piper asked as they moved out onto the street.
"It's probably from my editor."
"Why would she send something to the bookstore? She'd simply call you, right? I think you should open it."
Curiosity and determination. Those were Piper's most outstanding qualities, and they served her well in her career. She wouldn't rest until she knew what was in the letter.
Nell pulled the tab. Inside was one page and the first four sentences matched the message in the first letter.
Your mission is to find the sapphire necklace that Eleanor Campbell stole from our family. Your sisters knew where to find the earrings. Now, it's your turn. I'll contact you and tell you how you can return the Stuart sapphires to their rightful owners.
Nell's gaze dropped to the last sentence. It was new, and an icy sliver of fear shot up her spine.
If you choose again to ignore your mission, someone in your family will die.
"One for the road," Lance Cabot said with a grin as he assumed the ancient fighting position, arms bent at the elbows and hands flexed.
Setting aside the file he was working on, Reid Sutherland stepped out from behind his desk and mirrored his adversary's stance. For seconds they moved in a small circle like dancers, retaking each other's measure.
"I can teach you the move," Reid offered as he had countless times before. Growing up as the oldest of triplet boys, he'd taken up martial arts as soon as his mother had allowed it. And he'd created the move by using his brothers for practice.
"Where's the fun in that? I think I've finally figured it out."
Reid blocked the kick aimed at his groin. "Maybe not."
They were evenly matched in height and weight, and Reid knew from experience that the baggy sweatshirt the man was wearing hid well-honed muscles. Reid was five years younger, so that gave him one advantage. And while four years at West Point and assignments in Bosnia and Iraq had kept his opponent fit, they hadn't provided the training in hand-to-hand combat that the Secret Service required of its agents. Another advantage for Reid. Plus Cabot's four-year stint in the United States Senate, not to mention a wife and two kids, could slow a man down.
A well-aimed foot grazed Reid's hip bone, making it sing. He feinted to the right, but the move didn't fool Cabot, and Reid had to dodge another kick. He blocked the next blow but felt it reverberate from his forearm to his shoulder. For two sweaty minutes, Cabot continued to attack, and Reid continued to defend himself.
Cabot had one major advantage. He was the vice president of the United States, and Reid's job was to protect him. Therefore, Reid kept his moves defensive. His office was not designed for hand-to-hand combat, but over the past year, that had meant squat to the VP. Thank God.
Reid feinted, ducked low and for the first time completely avoided Cabot's foot. The maneuver should have caused his opponent to stumble, but Lance Cabot merely shifted his weight and resumed his stance. "I like your moves."
"Ditto," Reid said as they continued their circular dance. He loved his job. Two things had drawn him to the Secret Service. First, the agency filled a need he'd had from an early age to protect those he cared about, and it allowed him to fulfill that need in a way that challenged him intellectually as well as physically.
Reid blocked a kick and danced to his right. Both of them liked a good fight, and neither wanted it to end yet. That was only one of the things that the two men shared. Like the VP, Reid knew what it was to balance family responsibility against that desire to push the envelope. He'd lived with it all of his life, and protecting the vice president had allowed him to push that envelope in ever new and exciting ways.
Keeping Cabot safe was first and foremost a mind game. It required the ability to foresee all possible scenarios in a given situation. Making sure that the VP could enjoy a Wednesday-night dinner with his wife in Georgetown posed almost as much of a challenge as his recent visit to the troops in Afghanistan. Plus the job offered the added bonus of protecting someone who was addicted to risk taking. Reid's boss had handpicked him to head up Cabot's Secret Service detail so that the VP's daredevil streak could be indulgedsafely.
To date, those indulgences had included race-car driving, rock climbing and most recently skydiving. For Reid, it was the job of his dreams. And he'd learned that indulging the VP's danger addiction made him easier to manage when the threat might be all too real.
"We've been sparring like this for over a year. Are you ever going to show me your A game?" Cabot asked.
"Someday." Reid gave the man points: he wasn't even breathing heavily. "When it's no longer my job to protect you from serious injury, I'll be happy to oblige. Are you ever going to show me what you think my secret move is?"
"Soon," Cabot promised.
Unfortunately the clock was ticking down. Last night Reid had officially gone on vacation. Jenna Stanwick, an up-and-coming agent he'd been personally training for the past month, was heading up the protection unit in his place. She would keep watch over the VP and his family for the next two weeks while they vacationed in Martha's Vineyard. The Cabots were due to leave within the hour.
As if he too was aware that time was running out, Lance Cabot, quick as a cat, made his move, coming in low to grab Reid's arm. Reid countered it by pivoting, before he snaked his other arm around Cabot's neck and tossed him over his head. One of the chairs in front of his desk overturned and a paperweight clattered to the floor.
The door to the office shot open, and Jenna Stanwick strode into the room, gun drawn. With one sweeping glance she assessed the situation and reholstered her weapon. "Having fun, boys?"
"You didn't see this," Lance Cabot said as he got to his feet.
"See what?" Jenna asked.
Lance turned to Reid. "Maybe she will work out as your temporary replacement."
Shooting Jenna a look of approval, Reid said, "She will. She has four brothers. Plus I taught her my secret move. She'll teach it to you, if you want."
"Not on your life." But he studied Jenna with new interest. "How about if I practice on you, and you can tell me when I'm close?"
Jenna smiled at him. "I'd love to, but you'll have to check the schedule your wife has mapped out. It looks pretty full to me."
Once Jenna had stepped out and closed the door, Reid righted the overturned chair and offered it to Cabot. "You are going to have a good time with your wife and sons. Even if none of the planned activities offer much of an adrenaline rush."
Cabot grinned at him. "Oh, there'll be adrenaline rushesthey'll just be different. Isn't it time you explored the adventures you can have once you marry and have children?"
Reid raised both hands in mock surrender. "No thanks. I'm not cut out for family responsibilities." He'd decided that a long time ago, during the slew of repercussions that had followed his father's arrest for embezzlement.
With a grin, Cabot sank into the chair. "You just need the right woman to change your mind." He waved a hand at the photos displayed on the credenza beside Reid's desk. "Or maybe your brothers could do the job, seeing as they've both found that special woman in the past few months." He dropped his gaze to the duffel bag at the foot of Reid's desk. "For a man who's dead set on avoiding the whole marriage-and-family thing, aren't you running a huge risk spending your vacation up at that castle with those magic stones?"
Reid narrowed his eyes. "Who says I'm going to Castle MacPherson?"
Cabot's grin widened. "Elementary. Really elementary. I don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out you're headed there. Not with the publicity your brothers have received lately. Each of them has been involved in the discovery of part of the long-missing Stuart sapphires. But the necklace is still lost. My bet is that sibling rivalry alone is pulling at you. I'm surprised that some enterprising reporter hasn't sought you out for an interview."