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St. Petersburg, Russia, Present Day
Minerva Parker had done many things in her eighty years of life, but flat-out stealing a rather mediocre, inexpensive antiquity had not been one of themuntil today. And damn if her theft of a few minutes ago hadn't been pure, glorious fun. The last time she could remember enjoying herself as much had been decades ago during an excavation in Cairo when she'd fought off a group of bandits who'd tried to rob a grave she'd uncovered, with nothing more to defend herself than her twenty-two caliber and a whip.
Minerva was a treasure hunter, and had been for the past fifty years. In other words, long before Lara Croft had ever dreamed of raiding her first tomb, Minerva had been on the scene, chasing relics and getting herself into the sort of hair-raising adventures that would make the fictitious video game character's exploits seem downright subdued.
Smiling to herself, though she made sure to make the expression suitably vacant and dotty, Minerva casually entered the lobby of one of the finest hotels in St. Petersburg, then crossed to the elevator and stepped inside. She didn't bother to check behind her to see if she was being followed. No one paid attention to old people and she'd just left the legitimate owner of her ill-gotten gains, Max Stone, none the wiser to the robbery and enjoying a drink at the Czar's Club, a seedy bar in downtown St. Petersburg.
Really, it was far too easy. Slip on a pair of reading glasses and hunch her shoulders a bit to give the appearance of being stooped with age, and people either completely ignored her or looked at her as if she'd just had her ticket punched for a one-way ride on theAlzheimer's express. However, she was quite disappointed in Max. They might not exactly travel in the same circles, but, as the saying went, it was a small world out there and the antiquities community was no different. After running in to her since he was a rascally teen accompanying his fathera professor in archeologyfrom dig to dig, the ridiculously handsome scoundrel should have known better.
She was a force to be reckoned with at any age and those who forgot did so at their own peril. Of course he'd been understandably distracted by a seemingly unimportant curio, one of the many second-rate artifacts that a small-time Russian fence had been trying to hawk to him and the other hunters thronging the Czar's Club. A quite normal occurrence for this time of year.
Every summer the International Antiquities League, or IAL, held a conference here in St. Petersburg.
Though the weeklong convention brought together the leading experts from various universities and museums around the world, they weren't the only ones to take over the picturesque city.
The symposium also attracted every student with enough euros to nab a rail pass, every private collector, treasure hunteror, as some preferred, antiquities hunterblack market merchant, and hobbyist who wanted to play Indiana Jones. And a person in the know could learn just as much in the Czar's Club, where the more nefarious members of the above list congregated, as she could in any lecture hall.
Which is why Minerva herself had been in the establishment, drinking a glass or two of vodkafreezing cold, no ice. She might be eighty, but she wasn't out of the game yet or about to miss all the action by going to bed early. Tonight, however, when she'd walked into the bar and gotten a feel of the room, she'd had the distinct impression that it would be better to slip into the background, watching and listening rather than charging into the action. From there, playing the little-old-lady card had been a no-brainer and had, as usual, worked like a charm.
Minerva entered her suite, then moved to the sitting area, shrugging her large tote bag off her shoulder and onto the coffee table. Sinking into the feather pillows on the settee, she smiled as she pictured the look on Max's face when he realized that he'd been robbed blind.
Of course, just picturing Max's masculinely beautiful face would be enough to make any woman smile, and she was no exception. Two or three inches over six feet, he had piercing blue-green eyes, the body for a man to have and the most unusual hair. Quite stunning, actually, with streaks of color from mink-brown to shining gold running through the too-long mass.
Yet Max Stone was more than handsome. He was dangerous and unpredictable. A scoundrel to the bone. His personality and presence were a combination of Han Solo meets Rhett Butler, crossed with that nefarious Sawyer character from the television show Lost, all rolled into one magnificent package.
Minerva had once had a lover like him and she almost sighed aloud at the memory. Every woman should have a thrilling and passionate love affair with an unrepentant rogue like Max Stone. Each moment in their company was exciting and they could usually back up their potent appeal with masterful expertise in the bedroom.
Nothing at all like the spineless idiots her beautiful young great-niece, Cassie, somehow managed to get herself wrapped up with. Especially the toadas Minerva liked to call himto whom Cassie had been engaged. Fortunately, the toad had broken it off all by himself before Minerva had been forced to do something drastic, such as have Cassie kidnapped and deprogrammed.
Sadly, though the young woman whom Minerva loved more like a granddaughter than a distant niece certainly tried to live up to the Parker legacy, things usually had a way of getting completely out of hand for Cassie. Which is why the blasted girl was back at home in Palm Shores, Florida, managing Minerva's shop, Den of Antiquities, rather than out living her own adventures. According to Cassie, she was merely taking a break and reassessing what she wanted to do with her life, or some such nonsense. In Minerva's opinion she was just plain hiding.
Minerva chuckled and eyed the items on the coffee table. If she was right, the chain of events that she'd just set into motion would more than launch her beautiful great-niece back into society. Wearing what was no doubt a smug grin, Minerva reached for her satchel and lifted out the fruits of her crime.
She stared down at the lover's box she'd liberated from Max. Opening the lid, she removed the diary inside, skimming through the pages and smiling in approval at some of the more interesting entries before setting it back.
After the other hunters had wandered off in search of better merchandise, unaware of what they'd overlooked as junk and left behind, Minerva had watched from a nearby table as Max Stone had swooped in and bought the lover's box from the Russian fence for less than fifty American dollars. The trinket was gaudily painted and in poor condition, but for those aware of its significance, this hardly decreased its valuea find that maybe fifty hunters and scholars combined would even recognize.
Few people were familiar with the Gypsy folklore and fables of almost ninety years ago surrounding the life of the last great Gypsy king, Rajko Sanderzej. Even fewer knew about the lover's box that Rajko had made for the woman he loved.
One tale claimed that the man who possessed Rajko's box held the secret to a treasure for which czars and kings would die. Another claimed that the woman who possessed Rajko's box held the secret to sexual ecstasies beyond those that only the most passionate of females dreamed.
Of course most historians considered it pure bunk, and even among the Gypsies, the existence of Rajko's box had taken on the status of an urban legend. But, great heavens, it boggled the mind to think about the possibilities a woman could explore if she had Max Stone and Rajko's lover's box at her disposal.
Ahh, Minerva remembered thinking wickedly to herself as she'd sat in the Czar's Club, what she wouldn't give to be fifty years younger like her niece, Cassie. It had been on the heels of this titillating thought that Minerva had realized the opportunity in front of her was just too darn good to pass up. And, she didn't have a single doubt that Max would chase after the lover's box.
Max needed the box in order to find Rajko's treasure. Though she might not know it, Cassie needed the box to have the sort of glorious sex that thrust a young woman out of hiding and forced her into the open where the stark light of fleshly pleasures illuminated and empowered her soul. Or at the very least gave her great screaming orgasms.
Minerva glanced at her wristwatch. Late, but at a hotel like this one the front desk staff always catered to guests. She needed packaging materials and tape sent up immediately. She walked to the phone and picked up the receiver.
She doubted that Max had yet discovered the theft. He was probably still slamming back the vodkas and riding out the high of knowing he'd found Rajko's box. Quite a feat since, for almost ninety years, no one had been able to conclusively prove its existence, let alone go after its mythical treasure.
Minerva had about twenty-four hours or so before Max pieced two and two together. Just enough time to express-deliver Rajko's box to Palm Shores. And just enough time to lay a trail for Max to follow, and to give Cassie a head start on using the box Rajko had designed for his woman.
Then it was up to Max Stone to decide just how badly he wanted a czar's ransom in treasure. And up to Cassie to decide just how badly she craved pleasure. Pleasure, as the youngsters would say, to the max
Palm Shores, Florida, three days later
Cassie Parker could not think of a single sexual fantasy that didn't sound corny or clichéd. Or one that didn't require an immediate crash diet. All of which was a major bummer since, if Aunt Minerva's package that had arrived yesterday and the accompanying letter were to be believed, Cassie had just been given the key to making her most erotic and forbidden fantasies come true.
Ah, well, Cassie had always believed that Murphy's Law had been written expressly for her, so it was no surprise really that with complete sexual fulfillment within her reach, Cassie was either drawing a blank or worrying about whether she'd look too fat in a French maid's costume. It was just her luck that this magical opportunity would arrive after she'd spent the past seven months eating her way through the ugly breakup with her ex-fiancé, Satan. (His mother had named him Ron, but the woman had been way off on that one.)
Twelve extra pounds, and every ounce counted when one was five feet two inches tall, on top of an already, er, curvy body type tended to play havoc with a girl's vanity. Heck, she didn't even like shopping for bathing suits let alone conjuring up pornographic images where she played the starring role. Well, if she looked on the bright side, a lover's box that guaranteed life-altering nooky, yet with the potential for crippling self-con-sciousness and outrageous embarrassment on her part, meant that the whole thing was bound to come true and she'd better start writing.
Grinning to herselfhey, it was either smile or cry in the face of cellulite anxietyCassie lifted her wineglass and took a sip. She leaned against the mound of pillows at the head of her bed. Her legs were crossed, and a brand-spanking-new diary rested on her thighs. The blank white pages gleamed up at her brightly.
Earlier, since Cassie had been at the store, anyway, and since her outrageous aunt would merely hound her until she tried out the lover's box, she'd bought the slim journal. After reading Minerva's letter it had seemed to Cassie that her wild and wacky Friday-night plans of eating chocolate chip cookie dough and giving herself a pedicure could only be enhanced by writing out exotic sexual scenarios and locking them inside an antique lover's box that, according to her illustrious great-aunt, was under a Gypsy love charm.
Then the ramifications had sunk in, and the wine had been brought out.
Cassie stared down at the blank page, suddenly feeling more than a bit stupid about the whole thing.