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The five men in the back of an unmarked van across the park from the Valtrian Royal Palace maintained radio silence. They were crowded by a wall of instruments, ignoring the dead body at their feet, watching the feed from a button camera that panned one checkpoint after another as its wearer passed through them.
Then the gilded, magnificent reception room of the palace came on the screen at last, looking exactly like the postcards vendors sold all over the city.
"Boss's in. We're good to go," the oldest of the men said, then clapped the rookie on the shoulder. "We'll be in an' out before they know what hit 'em."
The mood in the air was tense but optimistic as they checked their weapons.
"Anyone but her." Prince Istvan nestled the stash of two-hundred-year-old documents back into their leather pouch, then a ziplock bag and a protective box, careful not to damage the brittle paper. He shoved the copy he was making by hand into the inside pocket of his jacket. Every time he began work on the Maltmore diary, someone or something interrupted him. His office, located deep inside the palace, was supposed to be his sanctuary. He resented this latest intrusion, even if by his own brother.
Janos lifted a one-of-a-kind, eleventh-century medicine vial and turned it over, tapping the bottom with his fingernail while eyeing the rest of the curiosities on the desk. "She's already here. How was Brazil?"
"Loud." Istvan grabbed the artifact with his white-gloved hands and set it back on its special stand. He'd trained the staff to respect his wishes and keep their hands to themselves. But nothing was sacred to his brothers, who felt free to waltz in and rifle through centuries-old treasures as they used to ransack through each other's toy chests three decades back.
Janos—economist, two-time golf champion and superb yachtsman—was moving toward a side table and eyeing a medieval broadsword that had been brought in only that morning by a farmer who was digging a new well. A lot of discoveries were made like that. Istvan was itching to stop by for a look of his own. He had the farmer's invitation and full permission. All he had to do was find some time later in the week.
He could probably clear Friday morning, he decided as he came around his desk and deftly stepped between his brother and the sword.
Janos, older by a year, adjusted his impeccable tuxedo and fixed him with a look as he opened his mouth to speak.
Here it comes. The speech on how Istvan should pay as much attention to living things as inanimate objects. He heard that enough from his family to be able to recite it by heart. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, the only one of the royal brothers who would ever dress so low. He caught plenty of hell for it, too, the tabloids regularly mocking him as the worst-dressed of the princes. As if he didn't have bigger things to worry about.
"What are you going to do about her?" Janos asked, skipping the lecture, which was unlike him. He probably had the latest trouble in the financial markets on his mind.
"I'm not sending for her today." He'd decided that as soon as he had arrived that morning and was alerted to her presence at the palace. He was hoping to get out to the old palace wall before lunch to check on a small excavation there, one among two dozen projects he had going on simultaneously. "Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after."
His time was in even shorter supply than usual. The last of the summer sunshine poured in the oversize windows, reminding him that whatever excavations he wanted to finish this year, he better get on it. Soon the fall rains would slow all open-air digs to a crawl, then the winter freeze would stop surface work altogether until spring.
An amused look flashed across his brother's face. "I don't think she's the type to wait to be sent for."
"I know exactly what type she is," he muttered under his breath then, watching Janos closely for any clues, asked, "Have you met her?" Janos was a fairly good judge of women, with experience that outpaced Istvan's by at least five to one.
"Have not had the pleasure. But I've been told she's already at work in the treasury. Seems very diligent. Certainly an interesting woman from what I hear." His brother moved on to the glass-front display cabinets. "Your office is starting to look like a warehouse again. Time to send a few boxes over to the museum. Learn to let go. Anyone ever told you that?"
Istvan was thinking about how long he could put off the meeting without appearing inexcusably rude, so his brain caught up with his brother's words a few seconds late. "What treasury?" His muscles jerked, and he nearly knocked over a vase by his elbow, a unique piece that had taken the better part of a month to piece together.
He steadied the copper coil stand, his jaw muscles tightening. "Who authorized it?"
"There's only one treasury at the royal palace. And I believe Chancellor Egon gave her the go-ahead. Did I tell you I finally got a golf GPS? Gives accurate distance to any key point on any golf course." He was grinning like a kid at Christmas. "You should get one."
Istvan strode for the door, his mind as far from golf as possible. "Come." He gestured with impatience when he was forced to wait for Janos to follow. Once they were both out, he turned the key in the door, then pocketed it—he didn't like the way Janos had been looking at that sword—then he took off down the hallway as if the devil was after him.
But the devil was ahead of him, in fact.
"It could be worse," Janos called out with undisguised glee. "The Chancellor could have brought her here to make you marry her."
He barely paid attention to his brother's words. The Chancellor had given up his mad quest to see all the princes married just to gain good publicity for the royal family. The unfortunate marital consultant who'd come all the way from New York City to see Lazlo settled had eaten poison meant for the prince and nearly died of it. All worked out well at the end; Lazlo married her in a stunning turn of events. But the Chancellor lost his taste for matchmaking after that.
Which meant the remaining three Kerkay brothers who were still single could breathe easy for now. Although, to be fair, Istvan almost rather would have been forced to marry than be forced to share his treasures with that woman. Because he didn't plan on falling in love again, an arranged marriage would have suited him fine. For certain, he wouldn't put up such a fuss as Lazlo had when his matchmaker arrived. When the time came for Istvan to take that blow, he'd take it on the chin and be done with it.
He strode across the reception room without looking in the floor-to-ceiling Venetian mirror, a gift to one of his ancestors from a sixteenth-century doge, but made a mental note that a minor repair job of the silver backing still had to be scheduled. He pulled off his white cotton gloves and shoved them into his pocket, exited the room and ran down the long hallway that led to the treasury—to hell with decorum.
The guards at the door snapped their heels together in greeting. He went through, nodding to the next set of guards in the antechamber. Then he burst through the door to the treasury proper, a large hall with tables covered in velvet, giant bank safes lining one wall, another hosting hundreds of secured deposit boxes.
Priceless rugs, left behind by the Turkish invasion four hundred years ago, were kept in a climate-controlled chamber, along with some elaborately studded and painted war chests. Artwork that wasn't on display at the moment in the palace was kept in a side room, exhibited there in all its splendid glory.
"Your Highness." Chancellor Egon came forward and made the introductions.
"Your Highness." The woman measured up Istvan as she did a rather understated curtsy. She wore white gloves meant to protect museum artifacts, identical to the ones he'd just taken off.
Probably so she wouldn't leave fingerprints. She wasn't fooling him. Once an art thief, always an art thief—he believed that with his whole heart. As far as he was concerned, Lauryn Steler was only one small step above a tomb raider, which had been her father's sordid occupation, in fact.
She and her kind stood for everything he spent his life fighting against.
"Miss Steler." Greeting her politely took effort, but good manners had been hammered into all six princes at an early age. He did stop short, however, of telling her that she was welcome at the palace.
"Chancellor Egon was about to show me the coronation vault." She beamed, either not noticing the slight or choosing to ignore it.
Fury that had been rising inside him now bubbled dangerously close to the surface. "How kind of him." His voice had enough edge to cut through the seven-layer titanium alloy that still stood between her and his heritage, the sacred symbols of his country and his family.
The Chancellor stiffened and took a step back, giving him a worried look. "Your Highness, I was merely—"
"I'll take over here. You may leave."
"Certainly, Your Highness." The Chancellor backed out without argument. He'd lost a lot of his bluster and bossiness after the mishap with Lazlo. He wasn't exactly malleable, but he no longer butted heads with the princes over every little thing either.
The woman was still politely smiling. Her mouth was a tad too wide to be called aristocratic, but nevertheless, some people would have found her face pleasant. She didn't seem to have caught a single whiff of doom in the air.
"This is exciting," she said.
Either she was beyond belief impertinent or incredibly dense. Given her reputation, Istvan didn't think it was the latter.
"Isn't it? " He didn't bother forcing a smile, welcoming or otherwise. "I imagine it's the first time you've seen something like this."
"Yes, yes, it is." Her green-gold eyes looked a little too wide with innocence.
Of course, she'd been in a treasury before. In Portugal, he seemed to remember now something he'd heard about her a while back. If half the rumors about her were true, she'd been the best art thief who had ever lived.
She certainly dressed like a cat burglar. A pair of tight-fitting black slacks covered her long legs, her black short-sleeved shirt leaving her toned arms bare. She was as perfectly proportioned as a painting by the grand masters, her eyes mesmerizing, her skin translucent, her lines magnificent. Her copper hair was pulled into a sleek ponytail to make sure it didn't get in her way.
The closer he looked, the easier he could see how she'd bewitched many of her victims in the past, even poor Chancellor Egon who'd been taken by her enough to open the treasury doors, of all things. No fool like an old fool, his father had been fond of saying.
Good thing Istvan was always a lot more interested in what lay below the surface of things. And in her heart of hearts, Lauryn Steler was a thief, the worst kind of villain. He didn't care if the whole world had forgotten that. He wouldn't.
"I've already seen a few pieces I would like to take," she told him as if she were at one of those abominable wholesale outlets of her country that sold mass-produced goods in batches.
"I'm sure you have."
If she weren't a consultant for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, one of the most respected museums in the world, his answer would have been, Over my dead body. But the board at the Getty had asked for a loan of Valtrian artifacts for a special exhibit. Then the treasure would embark on a trip, residing for three months each in the top-twenty most-prominent museums of the world.
Chancellor Egon had made cultural exchange his new quest. If he couldn't use another row of royal weddings to cheer up the people and raise the country's visibility abroad, then he would do it by parading Valtria's past all over creation. A very bad idea, Istvan had been saying from the beginning, but somehow the Chancellor gained the Queen's approval anyway.
Of course, as ill as the Queen was some days, the Chancellor could probably manipulate her into any agreement. Istvan had said as much to Arpad, but his eldest brother brushed off his concerns. The Crown Prince fully trusted the Chancellor.
Maybe he should have left the conference in Brazil and come back to the palace sooner, Istvan thought now, looking at the woman, still unsure what to do with her. She moved with sinuous grace as she considered the display cases, wandering away from him as if pulled by a magnet toward his country's treasures.
"Magnificent," she said with awe that didn't seem phony.
"And protected by state-of-the-art security," he men tioned in a note of forced nonchalance, not at all approving of that throaty, sexy voice of hers that didn't go with her sleek, crisp appearance.
Her voice belonged to a seductress swathed in silk in a candle-lit boudoir. He blinked that ridiculous image away. He didn't think Miss Steler spent much time reclining on satin pillows. He could, however, see her rappelling from high ceilings, or jumping roofs and disappearing with her latest loot strapped to her back, nearly invisible in the night.
He had a feeling that if quizzed, she could tell him the exact number and location of every security camera in the room, in addition to the content and worth of each display. The Getty sending her was a stunning oversight.
Their excuse was that none of her past transgressions could be proven. That they couldn't punish her for her father's sins. That even if she had a shady past once, she was reformed now, one-hundred-percent trustworthy and the best in the business.
"Shall we?" she was asking with unbridled optimism, nodding toward the safe door that protected the crown jewels.
He wished he could say, When hell freezes over. Instead, he stepped up to the iris scanner. "Istvan Kerkay," he said for the voice recognition software. And with a soft hiss, the hydraulic lock opened.
The lights inside came on automatically. He motioned for her to proceed first. As outraged as he was, he was still a gentleman.
She gave a soft gasp.