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The women in the chatty cluster nearest to me wore diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires, mostly with classic gowns, although one woman wore a radical leather sheath from a new star on the designer front. I hummed along with the Robbie Williams pretender who fronted tonight's band while my gaze wandered from jewel to jewel. No rubies yet. A pity because Father's contact had requested red stones.
Turning to broaden my vista, I intercepted the shocked look of a new acquaintance. Jessica, no ... Jemima. I'd met her at two society bashes so far, and no doubt we'd keep bumping into each other for the rest of the season. The horrified look on the woman's face was worthy of a photo. I would have laughed, but I sensed Jemima was going to make a scene.
"Kate Fawkner! What are you putting in your mouth?"
The spoon I held in my left hand came to an abrupt halt three inches from my lips. The chocolate confection on the spoon wobbled precariously.
"Kate!" Jemima screeched.
Heads snapped around while I froze like a virgin comedian in front of a hostile audience. My ears vibrated. I swear Jemima's shriek of horror swept to all four corners of the Ritz Ballroom on Piccadilly, probably halfway across London as well. My nerve elixir was creating the kafuffle.
Hell's teeth! After the terrible trio's lectures on the correct behavior for a fledgling cat burglar, I'd still slipped. "Do the blond-bimbo act," Father had said. "That always works. They'll think you're too stupid to execute a job." Yeah, right, Father. While my looks fit the stereotype, I wasn't doing so well on the execution.
I shrugged inwardly, knowing I was "it" whether I wanted the job or not. Father owed money to loan sharks. They wanted it back. Ergo: I was jammed smack in the middle of the mess. It was my duty to keep my family safe.
Jemima stared at my dessert as though it harbored a nasty cockroach. How was I supposed to remember blond bimbos only ate lettuce leaves? Mental note for next time-I'd just add it to the other dozen or so.
I placed my spoon down and stared at the double serving of Death by Chocolate with real regret. Chocolate was a weakness. Tonight it might be my downfall.
"I like a woman with a healthy appetite," a newcomer said. His voice held humor and the twang of the Antipodes.
Curiosity ignited, I turned to face him, clutching the offending dessert plate to my chest. As I stared, his gaze swooped, taking in the chocolate confection, rising fractionally to my 36C breasts, and finally lifting to my face. His grin was infectious.
"Looks tasty," he murmured, brown eyes twinkling in a naughty boy fashion.
The surge of heat to my face took me by surprise. At age twenty-five, I was past that flirty girl/boy stuff. Kate Fawkner handled everything the world tossed her way, rolled it in a tidy ball, and lobbed it back. I blinked at the dark-haired stranger. His grin widened. A dimple winked in his cheek, highlighting his amusement. Irritated by the flash of warmth that had zapped to my toes, my gaze traveled down the length of his rangy body before making a return slow-boat-to-China journey and doing some sightseeing on the way. Evening clothes: black trousers and cummerbund, pristine white shirt, and a black bowtie. Muscles gave the clothes a great shape. A vision appeared in my mind-one with far fewer clothes. Imagination connected the dots. Actually, "tasty" was a lackluster description for this specimen, but I hated to create an ego problem so I kept my poker face intact.
The man chuckled, not put out in the least by my leisurely survey.
"I'll take that for you." Jemima wrenched the plate from my hands and set it on the buffet table with a thump. "Have you broken up with Seth?" she demanded.
My father hadn't raised a fool. I clutched the excuse with both hands and ran. "Fight," I said, thinking of my childhood pony, Cuddles, and his death at the ripe age of twenty-five. The tears welled while I mentally apologized to my good friend and neighbor, Seth Winthrop.
"Maybe I can help take your mind off ... your problems. Would you like to dance?" the stranger asked.
I blinked to clear my tears and thrust out my hand. "My name is Katherine Fawkner. You are?"
"Kahu Williams." His large hand enfolded mine in warmth. "Pleased to meet you, Lady Katherine."
A surge of acute pleasure shot along my arm and sped to my lower belly. The sensation distracted me for an instant before his use of my title registered. He knew me? Or had seen me and asked questions? My brows shot up before I realized I wasn't doing such a stellar job keeping the blond-bimbo image intact.
A short, sharp giggle erupted. "You naughty boy," I trilled. "Seth and I will make up." My gaze settled on Seth in the far corner of the ballroom. My best friend was a closet gay. We'd made a deal to help one another by attending social functions together. Nothing romantic about our relationship at all. I allowed my smile to widen to a flirtatious, toothy grin and aimed it at Kahu Williams. "But if you're game, I don't mind making him jealous."
The distaste on his bronzed face made me want to cheer, but I didn't, now firmly in blond-bimbo mode. I seized him by the arm and dragged him onto the dance floor, chatting nonstop. I'd resume my surveillance of the attendees and their lovely jewels while we danced.
When I slid into Kahu's embrace, I considered the irony. Even though I wore an expensive red Valentino gown matched with the requisite accessories, the noble Fawkner family was flat broke. I'd been horrified to learn the financial situation when my daughter and I returned from Europe a few months ago. Financially embarrassed, my father was suffering from arthritis-a real crimp in his lifelong career, and the family estate was falling about our ears. As I said to Father and his good friend and sometimes-assistant, Ben, when they talked about the necessity of doing another job, "How many successful cat burglars did they know with creaky, swollen joints?"
It was up to me to correct the downturn in the family fortunes and assure our safety. A tough assignment with the goons sent out by the loan shark muttering dire warnings about our overdue payment. A shudder skipped through my body as I recalled the oily voice on the phone only this morning. "Pay up or else."
"Or else what?" I'd quipped, ever the smartass.
"Or else your daughter suffers," the man had growled. And he'd meant it.
Unfortunately, a qualified waitress didn't earn the sort of money we required to cement our future-a secure and safe future where we lived to enjoy our twilight years. That was when Father, Ben, and Hannah-the terrible trio-had suggested I take over the role of The Shadow.
So, here I was after much argument and discussion. Katherine Fawkner, cat burglar with training wheels, seeking a target to hit later in the week. Jeez! Sounded like some awful B-grade movie. But the alarming calls from the loan shark's goons and the bills in the overflowing mailbox put a realistic spin on the situation.
I inhaled deeply and moved closer to Kahu Williams, savoring his silent strength when my thoughts were in such turmoil. If I were looking for a man, he'd make the finalist list: intelligent, easy on the eye, with the slight kink in his nose hinting at an interesting history. The man was a natural on the dance floor, moving like a ... well ... a cat burglar. A real joy to partner. And tall, dark, and striking; smelled good, too. Pity I wasn't shopping.
Raising my head, I looked deep into a pair of chocolate-brown eyes. He had the sort of eyes a girl could fall into, if she had the time or the inclination.
"What sort of a name is Kahu?" The question came out as a breathy sigh. I gave myself a swift mental kick.
"Family name," he said. "Means Harrier hawk."
"I'm from New Zealand."
Good. That was good. It meant he didn't live in London, and I'd probably never see him again. "Here on holiday?"
"No." His gaze zeroed in on someone behind me.
Irked by his reticence and the lack of attention, I pushed for more. "So what are you doing over here?" The second the demand left my mouth, I sighed. Move over, blond bimbo-I want to get out. This wasn't the way to secure family safety! Concentrate. Pick a jewel. Any jewel.
"I'm on a case," he murmured, not taking his gaze from the object that had snagged his interest.
My feet stopped moving. "Case? What sort of case?"
"What's wrong?" His eyes narrowed, milk chocolate turned to dark.
"Thought I saw someone I knew," I muttered. My feet resumed the basic one-two-three pattern but I promptly stood on Kahu's foot. "Sorry!" I chirped. "Old boyfriend. Ended badly, you know." Okay, that was better. I sounded dizzy blonde again.
In silence, we recommenced dancing while my mind worked frantically. A cop! In all the gin-joints, why the heck did he have to pick mine? "Caught any crooks lately?" The blond bimbo leapt out with vengeance and stepped on his foot again.
"Will you watch where you're putting those heels?"
Even exasperation sounded good coming from his mouth. Sorta slow and sexy in his antipodean drawl. Oh, boy! I needed to get a grip. I mean I didn't even have the excuse of being drunk since I didn't drink and hadn't done so since the eighth of December six years ago. The mere thought of that night made my brain sharpen, my lusty senses dead to the man who held me in my arms. The vapid smile on my face died and grim purpose gave my backbone steel. In that moment, I became The Shadow on a job.
As we danced, I checked the men and women standing around the fringe of the dance floor. They chattered carelessly like twittering birds, hands gesturing while gemstones winked and glowed, drawing the eye. Drawing my eye as I settled into the serious business of choosing my mark. Glittering diamonds, sparkling sapphires, emeralds, pearls. Mmm, which would it be?
I caught a flash of red from the corner of my eye. Ah, a ruby. My gaze shot up to the face of the woman who wore the lustrous red stones around her slender neck. Nope, didn't recognize the face. Who was the man she was dancing with? He looked familiar. Perhaps Seth would know.
Just then Kahu swung me around, and I lost sight of my quarry. Damn and blast. The ballroom was crowded tonight with every aristocrat and wannabe in attendance.
"Can I cut in?"
Kahu's hands tensed fractionally around my waist before he let go. I regretted the loss of contact immediately, and that pissed me off.
"Thanks for the dance," he said and wandered away without a backward glance, leaving me to the mercies of the other man.
"Lady Fawkner. Kate. I've been looking for you." The voice was smooth and one I'd heard via telephone yesterday when he'd requested a meeting with Father.
Drat. I pinned a polite smile into place and swung about to face Richard Beauchamp. When I'd pressed, Father had admitted he owed the man money. Beauchamp wanted to arrange collection, no doubt. I tossed my head. One of the blond curls that dangled on my bare shoulders danced a jig. "So now you've found me." I needed to tread delicately until I found out what he wanted. After all, it was possible he owned the mouth that controlled the goons.
"Shall we?" he murmured. With polished, gentlemanly manners, he took me in his arms and started to move to the sounds of a Shania Twain ballad. Clammy hands clutched my bare arm and curled around my waist, drawing me close. His protruding belly bumped and jostled. The lead singer sang on. It was going to be a long four minutes.
"We need to discuss money," he said finally.
I played dumb, hoping to fill the gaps in my knowledge. And if I found he was behind the threat to my daughter, he was toast. "Oh?"
"Your father owes me money." The sophisticated veneer dropped enough to show the shrewd businessman behind. "He's behind on payments. The interest is mounting."
As he spoke, his hands slipped to squeeze my butt. I put up with his familiarity for the minute. It wasn't the place to show my self-defense skills. "What do you want me to say, Mr. Beauchamp? Should I congratulate you?"
A bark of laughter sounded. "You're a cool one." He studied me intently until I felt like a juicy steak cooked to perfection and ready to eat. "I wonder if you'll be as cool in bed."
My eyes narrowed. "I have a boyfriend, Mr. Beauchamp. I'm happy with Seth. I'm not on the market for further, shall we say, activity."
"I like that. An old-fashioned girl with scruples."
Huh, if only the man knew. Although I looked like Playmate of the Month in my clinging red dress, I was celibate. I didn't do sex, so he was wasting his breath trying to persuade me into his bed. The ballad cruised to an end. I wrenched away, giving him an icy glare when what I really wanted to do was let loose with a shriek and a kick to his smug upper-crust head.
"I must find Seth," I said, wanting to reinforce my previous words. I wanted to quiz him about the woman with the ruby necklace anyway.
"But we need to talk. I want to make arrangements." He paused, seeing what I'd already noticed. The band was leaving the dais. As the last couple standing on the dance floor, we stood out like pimples on an adolescent boy.
"Hell, too public. Meet me in the gardens in half an hour."
I nodded, not trusting myself to stick to language bimbo if I spoke. "Mr. Beauchamp," I finally gritted out. I had a job to do and time was wasting. There'd be no rendezvous in the garden, but he didn't need to know that right now.
"Oh, Lady Katherine?"
"Make it Richard. We're going to be very good friends."
Eew! I paused mid-step and turned back to check his expression. He'd better not mean what I thought he meant. Damn, he did. My eyes narrowed. Just let him try.
Feeling the weight of a stare, I glanced up and connected with a pair of chocolate-brown eyes. Kahu. For a mere acquaintance, he looked a little too interested in our conversation. Was he investigating Beauchamp? I glanced from Williams to Beauchamp.
"I thought you didn't double-dip," Beauchamp growled.
"I don't. I hardly know the man." Interesting. Apart from the snide reaction, he didn't appear to know the cop. But instinct told me something was afoot. Beauchamp might be clueless, but I was betting Williams was on his game.
Just then I saw the woman with the ruby necklace heading in the direction of the restrooms. It's right what they say about women and restrooms. Women really do require escorts. It's lonely in those places-much friendlier if there's someone with whom to chat about the latest gossip.
* * *
Perdita Moning, one of the Lancashire Monings, owned the rubies. She and her husband, the Honorable James Moning, were staying at their London residence in Hampstead. I researched the Moning family, obtained a copy of the security plans at great expense, and hightailed it back to Oakthorpe in Surrey.
"Father, what do you think? Is this job a go?"
My father and Ben, who also happened to be married to our housekeeper, Hannah, exchanged glances. It wasn't difficult to see they wanted to muscle in on my job. For a cowardly heartbeat, I considered it before grimacing. Father's arthritis was slowing him down. He'd had a good patch lately, but I couldn't take the risk. Despite the loan-shark business being Father's fault, I had to help. I didn't want him captured, not after he'd eluded the cops for so long. He'd earned his retirement even though it chaffed him. And I felt guilty for staying in Europe for so long without checking on Father.
"No, you are not going along with me," I said, making my voice firm. "You can help with the planning and organize a receiver for the goods. That's as close as either of you are getting."
My father scratched his head through sparse white hair and frowned. "But you haven't done a job before."
"But I have good teachers. I'll be fine." Christ, and maybe if I said that often enough even I'd come to believe. I was petrified, scared stiff I'd trip a silent alarm and summon the cops. They'd whisk me away and I'd never see my daughter, Amber, again. Things were dangerous enough for Amber without me adding further risk to the situation. An icy shiver of pure fear swept my body despite the lingering warmth of the summer day. I made a mental note to plead with Hannah to keep an extra-close watch over her when I couldn't be at Oakthorpe.
"She's physically fit, Charles," Ben said. "And clever."
My father sniffed. "That's no substitute for experience." He squinted at me, a flash of alarm suddenly shooting across his face at what he saw on mine. "You're not having problems with ethics, are you?"
Excerpted from The Shadow by Shelley Munro Copyright © 2006 by Shelley Munro. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 9, 2008
With her father¿s health failing, Lady Katherine Fawkner knows she must bring in income to maintain their standard of living and pay off a debt to loan shark Richard Brauchamp, who is willing to accept her as remittance. Ergo she trains to replace him as the family cat burglar, the Shadow. Her first job stealing jewels from Perdita Moning starts off well until she overhears the target talking to her apparent lover just before a shot is fired. She finds the woman dead, takes her jewels, but also sees a photograph of a family with a girl who looks like her daughter Amber. Katherine has the first clue to identify who drugged and raped her six years ago when she was eighteen years old. --- Police Inspector Kahu Williams leads the homicide investigation. He has met Katherine already and is attracted to her and though she reciprocates she has doubts about a cop in her life especially with her family. As she makes inquiries into the family photo she lifted, he begins to unwind threads that could lead him away from a killer to a female thief. --- Readers will think of To Catch a Thief as Katherine and Kahu play a game of romantic cat and mouse. The two are a fun couple with her DNA baggage and his occupation making for strange bedfellows. The dual investigations, her amateur sleuth into who drugged and raped her and his into homicide and theft, make for a fine courtship that fans of a lighthearted romantic mystery will appreciate. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.