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Just for Her
By KATHERINE O'NEAL
BRAVA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 Katherine O'Neal
All right reserved.
Chapter One 21 June, 1926 Cap Ferrat French Riviera
Jules awoke with a start.
Without moving, her eyes scanned the vast bedroom of her hilltop Mediterranean villa. The floor-to-ceiling French doors were open as she'd left them, the breeze billowing the gossamer white curtains into the room, playing with the moonlight that spilled in with a silvery glow. Beyond the windows she could see the conical tops of the cypresses that towered above the gardens below. All was quiet. The world around her seemed peaceful, serene.
And yet ...
Something had jarred her awake.
She lay motionless in her bed, listening. What time was it? The moon was still high in the sky. She hadn't meant to doze off, but the hours she'd spent waiting the night before had caught up with her. How long had she been asleep? Minutes? Hours? Her brain felt numb, heavy. She couldn't seem to think.
But then she heard the faint tinkle of the tiny bell she'd fastened to her study window before it was abruptly silenced. The hush that followed was dense, fraught with an expectation-a waiting-that throbbed in the air around her. She knew what that brief muffled tinkle meant. Someone had opened the window.
He was here!
And now her mind was sharp, her senses bristling. She lay frozen in her bed.
She could almost see him in her mind's eye-a dark mysterious figure, creeping up to her soaring terrace, finding the window to her study, testing it to find it unlocked. Startled by the bell, grasping it in his fist to silence it. Waiting, breath held, for some evidence of alarm, some movement in the house. And only when he was certain it was safe-only then climbing in through the window to the study beyond.
The study that was next to her bedroom, just on the other side of the wall.
She realized she hadn't been breathing and took a slow shallow breath. She realized, too, that her heart was pounding so violently it hurt her chest. It seemed to her that the sound of it must be reverberating through the night, and that even from the next room, he could hear it as loudly as she could in her own ears.
A cold panic seized her.
What have I done?
When she'd envisioned this scene in the light of day, it had seemed daring and romantic. But now that it was actually happening, everything in her screamed it was a ghastly mistake. The man in that room was no longer a projection of her naïve fantasy, but a living, breathing human being. And a dangerous one, at that.
The notorious cat burglar who'd been terrorizing the villas of the Côte d'Azur these past several months ...
The audacious thief who'd stolen Lady Westley's ruby ring from her finger as she'd slept ...
The scoundrel who'd lifted the Duchess of Parma's hundred-carat aquamarine collar from her wall safe without rousing a soul ...
Like a slide show flickering on a blank screen, the headlines flashed through her mind.
PANTHER ONCE AGAIN ELUDES POLICE TRAP ... GUARDS FAIL TO OVERPOWER FLEEING CAT ... IN FEAT OF MARKSMANSHIP, STRAIGHT SHOOTING CROOK EMBARRASSES PURSUING POLICE OFFICIALS ...
From Menton to Hyères, the idle rich were in an uproar, endlessly retelling the tales of the Panther's exploits in casinos, beneath the striped umbrellas of La Garoupe beach, and all along the circuit of cocktail parties up and down the coast. But as the stories had floated around her like snippets of melodrama from the silver screen, Jules had painted this phantom of the night with an entirely different brush, imbuing him with colors of a larger-than-life character from a storybook. And slowly, the desperate plan had taken shape in her mind.
Two days ago, assured of the brilliance of her scheme, she'd calmly told Lady Asterbrooke, the most notorious gossip in the South of France-a woman guaranteed to blab to the winds-that she had no fear of this bandit. "In fact, Bunny," she'd told the society clarion in a deliberately breezy tone, "I have every intention of wearing my emeralds to the Richardson ball on Saturday. I shall remove them from the Nice vault, and secure them in the wall safe of my upstairs study."
She felt confident the word would reach him. The Panther seemed to have an ear in high society, knowing when people would be out of their villas and even where their jewels were kept. So she'd laid the trap and waited for him to take the bait. She'd stayed awake the night before, certain he would come, excited by the prospect, even disappointed when he hadn't shown.
But now that he was actually in her house ... only steps away ... her actions seemed impetuously risky and downright foolhardy.
I must have been out of my mind!
Because the reality was neither daring nor romantic. It was terrifying. Her mouth was so dry she couldn't even swallow.
She listened in the trenchant silence for some indication of his movements. What was he doing? The study wasn't a large room. Once inside, he would look around, see the Fragonard on the far wall, step lightly to it, remove it from its hanger, set it on the floor.
Then he would get to work on the safe. Rolling the dial of the lock back and forth. How long would it take him to crack the combination? From his reputation, not long. Soon, he would pull the door open and see there was nothing inside.
What would he do then? Flee into the night?
I could just stay here, where I am, and he'll be gone. I don't have to go through with it.
But what then? What other choice did she have? There was nothing else she could think to do.
No, she had to go through with it. As demented as it seemed, it was her only chance.
But she'd have to hurry.
Determined now, she reached under her pillow for the pistol she'd placed there. It had seemed so solid and reassuring when she'd taken it from her father's gun collection. Now it suddenly felt flimsy and inadequate. But she gripped it tightly. Then, taking a gulp of courage, she rose from her bed. She fumbled for her robe, but in her agitated state, she couldn't find it. There was no time to search. He could be gone at any second. She'd have to go without it.
Her legs feeling like jelly, she quietly made her way across the darkened chamber to the connecting door. She'd purposely left it open, but it was now closed.
He had closed it. Without her even hearing that he had.
She placed a clammy hand on the knob. Slowly gave it a turn. Silently pushed it open.
And saw him across the room. A dim figure, standing at the safe, working the tumblers.
Once again, panic choked her. Her hand, holding the gun, was trembling uncontrollably.
What will he do when he realizes I'm here?
Her imagination conjured up a swift succession of images. The intruder rushing her ... overpowering her ... hurting her ... maybe even killing her ...
And she, through self-preservation, forced to shoot him ...
She'd never shot a gun in her life. She wasn't even certain she knew how.
Unbidden, she remembered Scott Fitzgerald saying, with drunken wisdom, "A burglar is only dangerous when he's been surprised in the act."
Stop it, she scolded herself. You can do this. You have to. Be firm. Unafraid. You have him in your power.
Just then, she heard the metallic click as he turned the handle and opened the safe. Within an instant, he would know it was empty.
As he reached inside, she said in French, "You won't find what you're looking for, I'm afraid."
He jerked around, into the moonlight streaming through the window from which he'd entered.
And as he did, she saw him more clearly-a tall figure, clad in all black, the fitted material clinging to a body that was muscular and sleek. A specially fashioned mask, also black, concealed the top of his face ... hiding his nose and cheeks ... sweeping over his head to cover his hair ... The only feature visible was a clean-shaven jaw and the faint gleam of dark eyes through the slits of his disguise. He stood poised and alert, his hands at his sides, ready to pounce. The effect was both masculine and feline, calling to mind images of the jungle cat to which he'd been so aptly compared.
All at once, he darted for the open window. But she was closer. Instinctively, she stepped in front of it, blocking his path, reaching behind her to pull it closed.
He stopped in his tracks.
"I have a gun," she told him, her voice shaky.
She could see his head swivel as he quickly surveyed the room, looking for another escape. Two doors. One, behind him, led to the hallway, but it was closed. The other, the one connecting to her bedroom, was closer and open. He stared at it, then back at her, no doubt wondering if she would really shoot him if he made a dash for it.
Astonishingly, despite her advantage, she sensed no fear in him. His presence sparked and sizzled in the room, sucking the air from it so she could barely breathe. A raw stalking presence, wholly male, predatory and sexual in nature, made her suddenly aware that she stood before him in nothing but a lace and chiffon nightgown. She could feel the vulnerability of her soft female flesh, of the swells and hollows of her body, in a way that made her feel it was he who held the upper hand.
For a moment-an eternity-he didn't move. He just stood there, his gaze locked on her. She could feel the heat of that gaze as though his hand was passing over her. She tried again to swallow. Heightened by the danger, it seemed that every pore of her skin radiated and throbbed with her awareness of him.
And then, like lightning-so suddenly, she had no time to react-he lunged across the room and wrenched the pistol from her hand.
For a moment he just stood there, the weapon aimed at her. Her hand aching, Jules could feel the frightened rasp of her breath. Her imagination running wild again, she pictured him pulling the trigger, heard in her mind the roar of the gun's report.
The silence was deafening. Her nerves were raw.
But then-quickly, efficiently-he flipped open the barrel, let the bullets drop to the floor, and tossed the pistol aside. Jules felt a momentary relief. But it was short-lived. Unthreatened now, he skirted around her and started for the window from which he'd come.
In desperation, she sprang to block his exit, flinging herself back against the window, her arms spread wide to prevent his escape.
"Please, don't go."
He stopped at once, his instincts honed. She imagined him grabbing her and hauling her aside.
Instead, with a stealthy grace, he veered to his left and started for the open door that led to her bedroom and the terrace beyond. Realizing his intention, she ran after him.
"Wait!" she cried.
He wheeled on her threateningly, his hand raised. "Stand back," he warned, speaking in Italian-a deep, whispery, dangerous growl.
Switching quickly to Italian, she told him, "I just want to speak with you. That's why I lured you here."
"Lured me?" He glanced about warily, as if expecting a contingent of police to burst into the room.
"There's no one here," she rushed to assure him. "I don't want you captured. I just-"
He wasn't listening. She could feel his urgent need to get away. He crossed the room, rounding the bed on his way to the French doors, the terrace, and freedom beyond.
Fueled by despair, Jules shot after him and grabbed him by the arm. Beneath the black sweater, it felt like iron.
He jerked free with a strength that sent her tumbling back. "I don't want to hurt you, but I will."
Jules was past caring. All she knew was that she couldn't let him walk out the door and out of her life.
She grabbed onto him once again. This time he shoved her back onto the bed. "Don't you care what happens to you?" he snarled.
"No," she confessed. "I have nothing to lose."
"You're mad," he rasped.
"Am I?" She stood slowly, careful not to cause alarm. "Perhaps. All I know is that fate has brought you to me."
"Destiny has sent you to me, Panther. You can't run away now."
He turned to leave, but she gasped out, quickly, "I have a proposition for you."
That stopped him. Slowly, he asked, "Now, what kind of proposition could a woman like you have for a man like me?"
Her eyes roamed the feral black-cloaked phantom before her. Unbidden, the first line of Byron's Don Juan sprang to her lips: "'I want a hero.'"
"You want what?"
She took a breath and spat out the words.
"I want you to kill my husband."
Chapter Two The intruder hadn't counted on this.
He hadn't counted on her waking up and catching him in the act.
He hadn't counted on how ravishing she would look in the filtered moonlight: a vision to take one's breath away. The blond hair, falling about her shoulders in slumberous disarray, gleaming like spun gold; the white lace bodice of her nightgown clinging to the voluptuous curves of her breasts; the chiffon skirt swirling gently in the breeze around the slender legs; the pampered skin dewy from Parisian lotions and tanned by the southern sun. Her voice, cultured, silky, carrying the faintest trace of an appealing Austrian accent-the sound of it alone was enough to make any man hard. She had the face of an angel and the body of a Botticelli nymph. With her aura of innocence and vulnerability, he couldn't have envisioned a more ideal embodiment of a fairy-tale princess.
And yet, this delicate beauty was telling him she'd lured him here to ...
"You want me to ... kill your husband?"
When he spoke, the words sounded as crazed to Jules as they did to him.
"It wasn't my intention to blurt it out that way," she said. "But that is, indeed, what I am proposing."
Slowly, incredulously, he asked, "Why on earth would I want to kill your husband?"
"Because he's a monster." She said this with a sense of poise and delicacy, as if she'd just told him her husband was cutting roses in the garden. "And because I shall compensate you for the service."
He was still staring at her as if she'd lost her mind.
Have I? she wondered.
Deliberately he said, "Let me see if I understand you. You want me to kill the man in cold blood?"
"Of course not. I'm not a murderess."
He shook his head as if to clear it. "What, then?"
"I want you to kill him in a duel."
"What I'm going to do," he told her evenly, "is leave this house and never look back."
He headed for the open doors.
"Do you know who I am?"
He stopped again, in the shadows of the terrace overlooking the gardens below. "I know exactly who you are. The Archduchess Maria Theresa Louisa Juliana von Habsburg. Formerly a royal princess of the Habsburg family, recently dethroned by the Great War and sent into exile. Currently wife of British business tycoon Dominic DeRohan. I make it a habit of researching my prospective-donors."
"Then you know I can afford to compensate you for your trouble."
"On the contrary. I know you have next to nothing of your own except this house and your share of the Habsburg jewels. Not being portable, I care nothing for real estate, but obviously my presence here tonight tells you I care about the jewels. So tell me ... will you offer a few choice stones as payment for the ... service? Say, for instance, the Marie Antoinette pearls?"
"I'm afraid I can't do that. They're my-birthright, if you will-all I have left of my family. But I do have some household funds at my disposal."
He considered her for a moment. "Why do you want him dead? To get control of his money?"
"I care nothing for his filthy money. I want him dead because he's the devil himself. Because he killed the two men in the world I cared about. And because I now know it's the only way I can ever be free of him."
He glanced about, taking in the suggestions of furnishings in the darkened room. "If you don't mind, I'll take myself out of the light. An old habit, I'm afraid. Since you insist on this conversation, I take it you won't mind if I avail myself of one of your chairs?"
"Of course. I'm sorry. I seem to have forgotten my manners. But then, the circumstances are rather unusual. I was rigorously schooled in every aspect of entertaining, but I was never prepared to-"
"Entertain thieves in the night?"
"You're the first thief I've ever-met, much less entertained."
Suddenly she couldn't believe she was having this conversation with this man. Once again, her heart began to beat erratically.
"And you're the first quarry who ever asked me to do away with her lord and master." He made his way to the far right corner of the room and a padded brocade chair. Once he sat down, he was completely hidden by the shadows. He might not have been there at all, except that his voice floated to her like a murmur from the bottom of a well. "If you hate him so much, why did you marry him?"
Excerpted from Just for Her by KATHERINE O'NEAL Copyright © 2008 by Katherine O'Neal. Excerpted by permission.
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