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The door to the library at the McCord family mansion suddenly opened and an absolutely stunning woman with long, wavy, honey-blond hair rushed inGabriella McCord. Her face and figure had been on every fashion magazine cover in the free world and in a few tabloids.
Rafael Balthazar's breath hitched, though he'd never admit it. He did not want to protect a socialite model who'd grown up with every luxury at her fingertips! But as security consultant for McCord Jewelers he had no choice, not when Blake McCord had asked him for this favor.
In a peacock-blue, figure-fitting dress, matching high heels and swingy gold earrings, Gabriella could take any man's breath away. Just not his. He didn't go for divas.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she began with a smile that added punch to her beauty.
Their gazes locked and, for a few moments, Rafe actually felt a shift in his universe.
"My plane was delayed," she explained, her gaze still on his. "I just checked in and rushed over" She stopped when she realized he wasn't smiling or crossing the room to greet her.
If she expected him to fall at her feet, she was going to be disappointed. "Miss McCord, I'm your bodyguard. My duties will begin tonight when you return to the Sky Towers. Blake assures me a driver will chauffeur you back to the hotel after his mother's birthday dinner. I'll meet you there and we'll go over your itinerary for the upcoming week."
Gabriella's small, well-defined chin came up and her back straightened. "It's so good to meet you, too, Mr. Balthazar. I just want you to know I don't feel I need a bodyguard. This is Blake's idea, not mine."
Nope, Rafe wasn't moving towardher. He had to establish an impenetrable boundary now. In a low, controlled voice, he responded, "You don't need a bodyguard? I understand there was a scene at the airport when you arrived." Blake had filled him in on that disaster. Rafe hadn't been available sooner. He'd been handling a security problem in Houston and had just returned in time to meet Gabriella before Eleanor McCord's birthday dinner.
Gabriella's cheeks flushed a bit. "Paparazzi somehow found out when I was arriving. I managed to slip away."
"More than paparazzi found out. There was a crowd waiting for you and it blocked the limo from leaving. Two things you'll learn while I'm guarding you. One, you have to be honest with me. Two, you must not put yourself at risk unnecessarily. Understood?"
Gabriella's golden-brown eyes sparkled with defiance. "Understood? I understand that you were once a Secret Service agent, and a very good one. That's super. I commend your service. But I will not let you dictate where I go and what I do. Do you understand?"
He had to admit she was one beautiful, feisty package. Something he had to ignore yet manage. "My job is to keep you safe."
"So you'll just have to do your job. As spokeswoman for McCord Jewelers, I'm going to do whatever Blake has planned for me and that will probably involve crowds. I also have a few engagements of my own and I can never predict what will happen."
"Like a stalker accosting you?" Rafe knew that had happened last year.
Gabriella's face drained of color, then she recovered her composure and gave him a new smile. "I haven't had any stalkers recently, so no worry there. And you only have to cover me for a few weeks. I'll be returning to Italy for a short time at the end of August. When I return to the States, Blake will have screened someone else and you can go back to your job concentrating on the security of the stores."
"In the meantime, we have to work together."
"No, Mr. Balthazar. You just have to make sure fans don't tear me apart."
Unbidden, an image took form in front of Rafe's eyes, a photo of Gabriella that had appeared in a tabloid last month. The paparazzi had snapped a picture of her dancing in a London club. It was a money shot because the clasp on her designer dress had malfunctioned. Just as the top of the dress had fallen
Had the episode been an accident? Or had the whole situation been planned for publicity's sake?
This time Gabriella's face rapidly gained color, and he knew she was recalling the same image. Abruptly she turned away from him.
"Miss McCord "
"We'll talk later," she murmured. "I don't want to keep my aunt waiting on her birthday."
And Gabriella McCord was gone.
"That went well," Rafe muttered and raked his hand through his short-cropped, black hair.
Gabriella McCord would be even more trouble than he'd expected, but he could deal with her. He'd protected the president of the United States. He wouldn't let one pretty model throw him off his game.
Not now. Not ever.
An hour later, Gabriella sat at the huge mahogany table in the mansion's dining room, still feeling shaken to her core. Why had she reacted so strongly to Rafael Balthazar? It had only been a month since she'd finished an emotional entanglement with Mikolaus Kutras that had turned out to be the worst relationship in her life. She certainly wasn't ready for another.
And she wasn't the only one who wasn't herself tonight. This was supposed to be a celebration of Eleanor McCord's birthday. A widow for about a year, Eleanor had asked all of her children to be with her tonight, and had included Gabby. Gabby and her aunt Eleanor had always been fond of each other. When she was in the U.S. and her own mother was back in Italy or finishing a film somewhere, Gabby knew she could count on her aunt.
Eleanor usually wore a smile, but tonight it was a thin replica of itself. The rest of the family wasn't much better. Blake, CEO of the McCord jewelry store empire, wore a sober expression. Tate, who had been engaged and easygoing before working in Baghdad as a surgeon with the International Medical Corps, had returned a changed man. Instead of happy-go-lucky, now he was brooding and disillusioned. And Gabby could see that everyone around the table saw the changes in him.
Beside Tate sat Paige, who every once in a while gave her brother Blake a quick look. Gabby wondered what common knowledge they shared. Paige had always been a tomboy. A gemologist now, as well as a geologist, she took trips to Africa and South America to unearth the beauties underground. Penny, Paige's twin, was quiet and refined. She designed jewelry for the McCord stores and had sold pieces to European royalty, movie stars and jet-setters.
Charlie, the youngest McCord sibling, sat to Gabby's right. He was twenty-one, and would be returning to Southern Methodist University in a couple of weeks. Charlie was very social, but tonight he'd hardly said two words. He and his mother hadn't looked at each other once. The undercurrents of tension at the table were like rippling atmospheric tremors. Gabby didn't think she was the only one who could sense them because conversation lagged, there were awkward lulls and this family who usually had so much to say was much quieter than it had ever been.
Still trying to change that, Gabby took a bite of her tiramisu and said to Eleanor, "The dessert tastes wonderful."
"Yes, dessert is wonderful," Blake agreed with Gabby. "I want to wish you all the best, Mother, for your birthday."
Gabby felt relieved Blake was finally making conversation.
But then Blake's voice took on the hard edge of stony determination. "I've postponed telling all of you as long as possible what you probably already know. McCord Jewelers is losing revenue. With the economic downturn, even our rich consumers are holding back. They're postponing purchases, eliminating others. And the general public We've got more lookers than buyers."
"Just the U.S. stores?" Eleanor asked.
"The stores Joseph oversees in Italy are holding their own for now, but I want to make sure that continues."
Gabby was proud of her father though he hadn't been around much when she was growing up. These days, they had a great father-daughter rapport and she still loved wandering around the stores he ran in Florence, Rome and Milan, admiring all of the beautiful pieces.
"With the competition in the marketplace today," Blake went on, "our brand isn't as important or prestigious as it used to be. We need to do something about that now."
Eleanor looked stricken. "My goodness, Blake, how bad are things?"
His handsome face became grim, and Gabby knew her cousin didn't like his judgment to be questioned.
"Bad enough. That's why I'm telling you tonight. After Dad died and I took over, I found out McCord's wasn't as solvent as we thought it was. I had audits done in all the stores and the pattern is the same. If this continues, we might have to close Atlanta and Houston, maybe even Los Angeles. Our flagship store here in Dallas needs a lift, too, so we're going to give McCord Jewelers a PR boost to generate excitement around our brand."
His gaze met Paige's for a moment and then took in everyone else again. Gabby wondered if Blake had already discussed all of this with his sister.
"I've developed a multifaceted campaign," he went on, "based on the discovery of the Santa Magdalena diamond."
"The Santa Magdalena diamond has been lost since the 1800s!" Penny offered.
"Yes, it has been," Blake agreed.
"Treasure hunters found the ship it supposedly went down on about six months ago," Penny explained further. "I followed the news reports in case there was any jewelry found."
Gabby knew Penny was always on the lookout for stimuli for jewelry design ideas.
"Since the diamond wasn't found," Blake said quietly, "rumors that it was stolen by the crew surfaced again."
"Wasn't one of those crewmen Gavin Foley's father?" Tate asked.
Gabby expected to hear a unanimous gasp from everyone at the table. The name Foley was never spoken in this house, never spoken when the McCords gathered, never spoken if anyone could help it.
Responding to Tate, Paige answered his question. "Yes. The rumor was that Elwin Foley made off with the diamond. We're assuming that that rumor is true for a very good reason."
Gabby had learned the story of the feud between the Foleys and McCords long ago. It had begun when Blake's grandfather, Harry McCord, had won property with abandoned silver mines in a poker game from Gavin Foley. From what Gabby understood, Gavin had been a gambler rather than a laborer. The five mines his father had opened had never produced any silver, and his father had gotten killed trying to find it. Gavin had decided he wouldn't be that unlucky. He'd also never intended to be so unlucky that he'd lose the property in a poker game. Booze and adrenaline had caused him to put it up and Harry McCord, Blake's grandfather, had taken advantage of him. Afterward, Gavin had sworn that Harry had cheated.
The feud had begun.
At that time, everyone thought the mines were worthless, but Harry McCord dug deeper in those mines and he'd found silver. He'd become rich. The Foleys, including all of the descendants, hated the McCords.
"Our family tried to end the feud," Eleanor interjected. "Devon gave Rex a lease to the property."
Through keeping her ears opened on her visits to the mansion when she was small, Gabby had overheard conversations and learned that her aunt had been part of the feud, too. Supposedly both Rex Foley and Devon McCord had courted her at the same time. Devon, Blake's father, had won. That love triangle had created more tension between the families.
"Your father tried to appease the Foleys," Eleanor insisted to everyone gathered at the table.
"I'm sure that Travis Foley, who's living there now," Tate remarked sarcastically, "faces the sunrise each day cursing the McCords because the land under his feet doesn't belong to him."
"Maybe so," Blake admitted coldly, "but the McCords still own those mineral rights and I have reason to believe the Santa Magdalena diamond is hidden in one of the mines."
"You're kidding!" Penny blurted out. "Why would you think that?"
"I think that because I went through Dad's personal papers again trying to find ideas to reestablish our brand. I found the deed to the property. After studying it, I realized it held the clue to the Santa Magdalena diamond's whereabouts."
"And nobody saw it all these years?" Tate asked skeptically.
"There's a border on the deed," Blake explained. "Apparently no one has paid any attention to it. Incorporated into that border are replications of petroglyph symbols. One of them is an eagle with a diamond shape in its claws. The border is faded so I sent the deed to an expert. After analysis, he agreed the symbols were drawn on the deed after the border. When I was a teenager, I explored the mines to see what they were all about, and I think the eagle mine is the key to finding the diamond."
Paige explained further, "Each of the mines has a petroglyph etched on a rock outside the minea turtle, a lizard, a tree, a bow and an eagle. We believe Gavin's father hid the diamond in the eagle mine. Since he stole the diamond, he couldn't easily sell it. After all, it's supposedly the largest canary diamond in the world. Everyone would have known. So what could he do but hide it somewhere until he could figure out how to make a fortune with it? He also knew mining was dangerous work so he drew the clues on the deed so his wife or son could discover it after he was gone."
Blake's shoulders squared as he assured everyone, "I know this is a long shot, but it's a long shot that could have a giant payoff. I'm buying as many loose canary diamonds as I can. I think they'll make a huge leap in value once the Santa Mag-dalena diamond is found. Just the publicity from its discovery will be huge. We'll have our stores ready to roll out a line of canary diamond products. Penny can work on that aspect. In the meantime, I'd like to initiate a new campaign for all the stores."