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The bullet missed her ear by the grace of God and a stone in her shoe.
Unwilling to tempt fate twice, Rowan Steele belly crawled across the roof of the Knightsbridge townhome, reluctant to find out if her assailant was going to try again or just come after her.
She needed a more secure location.
Not for the first time did she curse her innate fear of guns or she'd have nicked Grandfather's World War II service pistol and stuck it in the waistband of her black pants before sneaking out earlier. A raw, choked laugh welled in her throat at the irony.
Guns she ran in fear from. Climbing London rooftops as a means to rip off the contents below? Bring it on.
A shout echoed from the street, muffled in the light fog that coated the city. When she'd arrived ten minutes earlier, she'd considered the fog a blessing, but its rapid swirl and increasing weight had her reconsidering that decision.
Who the bloody hell would be shooting at her?
And how did they even know she was up here?
Rowan kept moving, her breath heavy, even as the questions swirled through her mind faster than the fog around her body. A small nook sat between two chimneyssitting room and study respectivelyand she moved determinedly onward over the rough tiles to give herself a moment to regroup in relative safety.
Obviously the jewelry extractionthe evening's main eventwas off.
Now she just had to figure out how to get off the roof undetected.
The small space enveloped her as she slid her body between the twin columns of old brick and took her first easy breath since the gunshot. Voices still echoed from the street, but they'd grown fainter and she didn't think it was only from the fog.
Her plans for the evening ran through her mind's eye on the same steady loop she'd not been able to get out of her head since her first visit to the townhome six months before. Her dear friend Bethany Warrington couldn't stop talking about her mother's latest gift from her fathera diamond-and-ruby bracelet purported to have been worn by Queen Victoria.
While Bethany might have been dear, she was altogether too dim and had blithely provided the combination to the jewelry safe her mother kept in her bedroom as she'd fiddled her way through it three times before successfully cracking it on the fourth.
Since the bracelet was basically sitting there for the taking, Rowan could hardly ignore the windfall and had plotted how she'd get in and out when Bethany's family took their annual jaunt to the Cote d'Azur.
On a rather huge level, Rowan knew what she was doing was wrong. Even if she could work her way past the clear directive in the Ten Commandments, she also knew by her actions she betrayed a friend.
Yet the impulse to taketo take and take and take whatever she could get her hands onwouldn't be sated.
And no matter how much she wanted to, she couldn't change that simple fact.
Just like her parents.
They'd been taken from her by that same God who'd laid down those Commandments and she couldn't quite get past the need to strike back at Him and anyone else who got in her way.
In those moments when she stole somethingbe it a piece of jewelry worn by royalty or a pack of chewing gum carelessly left on the edge of a desk at schoolshe felt.
And in all the other endless hours, she simply marked time with that sickening well of grief in the pit of her stomach that wouldn't close, even as month piled on month to the tune of nearly four years gone.
It was that same pit of griefand the desperate urge to fill itthat had her creeping out of her hiding place as the voices on the street below stayed quiet.
Rowan allowed those emotions to carry her along the path she'd originally mapped out. The large tree that stood in the small garden two doors down from the War-ringtons' had provided the rooftop access and it had been easy enough to work her way across the roofs until she got to number twenty-three.
It was now the work of a minute to shimmy down the back wall on the thick ivy vines that wrapped the back of the house and enter through the former servants' entrance. A servant-free entrance due to the fact that most were on their own holiday and the remaining three in residence had been given the night off.
Rowan crouched before the door, her pick tools in hand. The lock was complicatedshe'd expected no less on a home this dearbut she knew she could do it. Especially after all the practice she'd put in on her grandparents' town house.
After completing the last tumbler, she got back to her feet and opened the door. With careful strokes, she tapped out the alarm code Bethany had also shared and watched the red light flash over to green.
Rowan stood still for one moment, drinking in the quiet air of the house. Anticipation hummed in her veins and she took the briefest moment to savor it.
To savor being alive.
Then she relocked the door and headed up the kitchen stairwell to the third floor. The hallway carpet runner was soft under her feet as she moved into the bedroom Lady Warrington kept for her own use.
Night reflected through the windows, sheening the bedroom to a bright silver as Rowan slipped into the room. She slid open the double doors of the walk-in closet and went straight for the small safe built into the wall. The muted smells of fine leather, rich fabrics and the light scent of Chanel assailed her with a memory of her own mother's closet but she ruthlessly tamped it down.
She would do this.
And any sympathy for Bethany or her mother needed to be ignored.
Just as with the pick tools, the thin leather gloves that covered her hands weren't a deterrent, and she quickly sped through the safe combination from memory. Even without knowledge of the combination, Rowan knew the moment each tumbler fell into place. Call it a sixth sense, subtle anticipation or the superb hearing her family regularly teased her about; the answer didn't really matter. Rowan knew.
On the last spin, she settled on the number sixteenfittingly the same as her ageand reached for the safe's handle. The door swung open, revealing all of the beautiful contents inside.
Rowan looked past them, despite the fact they called to her, whispering what a conquest it would be to remove everything. Instead, she pressed on, the piles of velvet containers housing bracelets, rings and necklaces all ignored until her hand settled over the black pouch in the rear of the safe. The cuff was heavy in her hands and she already imagined the wink of diamonds as she pulled the pouch from the safe.
Already, she felt the way the hard metal would encase her wrist as she hid the bracelet under the too-long arm of her school sweater, daring fate to rat her out.
To uncover her dark, desperate need to feel something.
Despite her fantasies, Rowan was eminently practical and knew any further daydreaming would need to wait for home. With one last look at the layers of velvet boxes still in the safe, she let out a small sigh and reached for the thick metal door.
The scream welled in her throat immediately at the heavy hand that came over hers while another dragged heavily against her mouth, muffling any noise.
"Thank you, darling. You've made this terribly easy." The dark voice crooned into her ear, the sounds of England unmistakable in the cultured tones. His breath was warm against her cheek.
She struggled against the holdand the uncontrolled shiver at the light breathbut her captor was prepared, his elbows tightening against her shoulders to keep her still. Raw fear flooded her mouth with a harsh metallic taste as the simple urge to flee surpassed every other thought.
Was it one of the Warringtons' servants, lying in wait?
A cop come to catch her?
The thoughts tumbled one over the other, in time with the heavy thud of her heartbeats, and it took Rowan several seconds to realize her captor hadn't moved.
He'd made no effort to touch her further and she felt only his hands on her body, no press of a gun or knife.
"If I move my hand, will you listen to me?"
She nodded, the voice oddly seductive in the dim light of the closet.
"Since I don't fully believe you won't scream, let me give you one more piece of advice, Peach."
She stilled, the strange sense that he spoke the truth filtering in through the fear as the odd endearment sent a shiver down her spine. What was likely a simple way to address her in lieu of her name felt different somehow.
On his lips the name felt lush. And seductive?
While she wasn't all that familiar with the sensation, she'd read more than enough romances to wish for a little seduction in her life. Had giggled with her girlfriends over the very same.
"That gunshot you blithely ignored in favor of heading in here? The man with the gun and two of his friends are still outside the house. So I suggest you do nothing to alert them to our presence."
Whatever sensitive emotion had momentarily gripped her fled at the very real threat that awaited both of them. The man lifted his hand and Rowan took her first easy breath since he'd captured her. Although he'd removed the cover over her mouth, the press of his body still held her in place facing the safe.
"Wh-who are they?" Her breath hitched on the words and she winced at the weakness.
"I don't know but I suspect they're after the same thing we both are."
"The bracelet?" Her voice was stronger and she squared her shoulders under his grip.
"The very same."
"How would they know about it?"
"Seems as if Lord Warrington purchased something that wasn't really for sale."
"He stole this bracelet?"
"Steal is such an ugly word when there is a payment involved. He claims he purchased it rightfully, but it's been whispered in several places he knew full well the bracelet rightfully belonged to another."
The cryptic answer stilled her and Rowan tried once more to turn in his arms. "How do I know you're not with them?"
"I work alone." The words were swift and immediate and she didn't know why she believed him, but she did.
"I can feel the brush of your ski mask against my head. Can I just turn around to talk to you? I clearly won't be able to identify you."
A light laugh drifted over her as the velvet pouch was snatched from her hand and then the heavy press of his body vanished. Rowan wondered briefly at the loss of warmth before the thought fled and she turned to face her captor.
Her very first impression was one of broad shoulders encased in black. The tight shirt he wore tapered to slender hips and long legs that made her think of the gangly height of her older brother Campbell. The wool mask she'd felt whisper against her head covered his face; odd that something she'd normally think of as scary or menacing only left her curious to see the face underneath.
Rich hazel eyes glittered from the holes in the mask's face and she forgot herself for the briefest of moments when her gaze locked with his.
On a hard shake of her head, Rowan focused on the problem at hand. What was the matter with her? "Who's out there?"
A quick light flashed across his eyes before being replaced by a hard glint that matched his next words. "A few blokes who want what's in here and thought tonight would be a good night to case the joint. Just like you and me."
"How could they know that?"
"How'd you know that?"
The words were nearly outthat she knew the familywhen she bit them back on a hard clench of her teeth. He might be a friend for the moment, but the man clad head to toe in black wasn't to be trusted.
"Come on, Peach. Close that safe door and let's figure out how we're going to get out of here." The name whispered across her nerve endings once more, and Rowan tamped down on the delicious clench that seized her belly.
Rowan closed and locked the safe as directed. "There are servants' stairs at the end of the hall at the back of the house."
"They've got three guys. One's no doubt back there." The masked man never turned as he reached for her hand and dragged her from the closet. He gestured with his free hand as they crossed the broad expanse of Lady Warrington's room. "Over there. Behind the curtains."
"We can't hide behind the curtains. They'll find us for sure."
"No, they'll find us in the hallway, which is likely where they're headed now."
"They can't get in that fast."
"Of course they can. Especially since they've probably breached the back door you so kindly left unarmed." He turned to look at her. "You do realize you're not the only person in London in possession of lock picks?"
Once again Rowan was forced to clamp down on a retort, the truth of his words striking deep.
Why hadn't she quit when she was ahead?
The gunshot had been scary enough. She'd known once she got to safety between the chimneys that it was time to get out of there.
So why had she assumed the threat had vanished?
The image of her hand closing over the velvet bag holding the bracelet popped into her mind like a lure, but for the first time in four years the thought of possessing something not hers fell flat.
Her captorpartner in crime?pushed her behind the heavy curtains decorated with large, rather unattractive cabbage roses that hung along the wall of Lady Warrington's bedroom. Rowan felt the dusty air swirl around her as the man fluffed the thick floor-to-ceiling pleats into place.
The question was cut off by his hand as he covered her mouth and she caught the vague image of him shaking his head in the darkened space.
And then there were no wordsnot even breathas the thick, old door to the bedroom slammed open, knocking against the wall. "She in there?"
"No one's in here." A Cockney accent reached her ears, although it was muffled slightly through the curtain, and Rowan prayed the voice belonged to a man too dumb to do a thorough search of the room.
The voice that belonged to the man who hunted her pressed on. "This was her destination."
"Place looks untouched, guv."
Rowan could only thank the heavy rug that covered the floor didn't show footprints the same way plush carpet would have, and her esteem for Lady Warrington's decorating skills rose a notch.
"Did you search it?"
"Look. She's not here, I tell ya. Let's look at the safe." The muffled sound of footsteps crossing the room, then the nearly soundless swing of the closet doors broke the silence. "Look. Safe hasn't even been touched."
"Maybe she cracked it."
"Little bit of fluff like her?"
"Don't underestimate her. Size has little to do with skill."
A low grumble echoed from the closet and Rowan had to strain to hear the response. "She was on the roof not ten minutes ago. How'd she get in here, crack the safe and get away?"
The idea that the gunshot had happened less than ten minutes ago surprised Rowan. If she'd been asked, she'd have surely said she and the man in black had been in the closet for at least twenty minutes, yet it had been merely a quarter of that.
"What if she's still prowling the outside? Or got away's more like it." The assurance dripped from the second man's voice and Rowan could only offer thanks he was so eager to assume she'd fled the scene.
"Check the room. I'm going to work on the safe."
The moment of good fortunethe one that had bloomed so brieflyshriveled and died as heavy footsteps thudded in the direction of her hiding place.