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Rachel sighed in relief when the last tumbler dropped into place with gentle precision. She spun the giant lock and pulled open the huge titanium door, revealing the darkness beyond. Warm, climate-controlled air rushed past her as she stepped inside and trained the beam of her flashlight around the interior.
Nearly as large as her kitchen at home, the huge vault was organized with shelves and cubbies and smaller safes against two of the walls. On the other two walls sheet-draped artwork was hung. Every square inch of space had been utilized and was brimming with treasure.
Rachel wasn't impressed. She slid the heavy pack off her shoulders and set it on the floor. She opened the buckles and pulled out the bronze statue, then used her flashlight to hunt for an inconspicuous place to set it.
It didn't belong here with the legitimate art collection, but since she didn't know where Thadd's secret room was, this vault would have to do. Better the contraband eventually be discovered in Thadd's possession instead of hers and Willow's. It would be Keenan Oakes's problem then. The man couldn't very well expect to waltz into a billion-dollar estate without having a few surprises to deal with.
That thought perversely warmed Rachel's heart. Keenan Oakes owned Sub Rosa now, and his great-uncle's legacy was going to rear up and bite him on his butt.
Rachel set the statue in one of the cubbies, then pulled the small painting out of her pack and unwrapped it from the towel she'd used to protect it for the trip here. She pushed the sheets on the far wall aside until she found a space large enough to hang it. She returned to the pack and pulled out the silver tankard, wine cup, and snuffbox next, and gently set them in another cubby beside a vase that looked as old as the earth itself. She pulled the ruby and gold ring her father had given her out of her pocket, set the beam of her flashlight on it one last time, then reached up and dropped it inside the wine cup, flinching at the sound of metal falling on metal.
With a sigh of regret for having given up her father's gift, she turned and dug into the bottom of the nearly empty pack again and pulled out the emeralds.
Rachel clamped her tiny flashlight between her teeth and aimed it at the smaller, sequentially numbered safes. Holding the wrinkled paper next to the lock on safe number sixteen, she moved the dial to match another set of numbers written in black ink. Just as they had on the larger door, the tumblers fell with expected accuracy. The small door opened, and Rachel sighed again in relief.
"Thank you, Daddy, for thinking of everything," she whispered into the darkness. Frank Foster had thoughtfully given her a laundry list of the art she now possessed, along with a list of combinations and codes. He hadn't, however, given her the exact location of Thadd's secret room.
And she had to find it. The letter had also mentioned designs for fishing boats that had been built at the Lakeman Boatyard years ago. Special boats, with hidden compartments for smuggling stolen art into the country.
Designs that likely had Frank Foster's name on them.
Rachel wanted them destroyed. She wanted every last trace of her father's involvement in Thadd's illegal hobby gone.
Rachel shone her light into the small safe and was surprised to see a velvet bag already sitting there. She opened the velvet sack she had brought with her and dumped the contents into her hand. The beam of her light immediately shot out in glowing green ribbons going in a dozen directions.
She reached into the safe and pulled out the second velvet sack and opened it, only to find an exact duplicate set of emeralds.
Well, hell. What did this mean?
They were obviously forgeries. Thadd must have had copies made of the original emeralds. But what were they doing here, in this safe? Surely the lawyers had inventoried this vault shortly after Thadd's death and would have found them.
And they would have known they were stolen, wouldn't they? Wasn't there a database somewhere that listed stolen and unrecovered art? Surely these emeralds would have been on it.
Unless the appraisers had realized these were fakes. It wasn't a crime, was it, to possess copies of stolen jewelry?
Rachel shrugged. She would just leave the real ones with the fakes, and they, too, would become Keenan Oakes's problem.
She used the velvet bag to wipe off any fingerprints on Willow's emeralds, put them back in their bag, and was just placing them in the small safe when every overhead light in the vault suddenly snapped on.
Rachel dropped the other velvet pouch and watched, dismayed, as the fake emeralds tumbled out. She tried but failed to catch them, banging her forehead into the small safe door, slamming it shut with a resounding click. Everything clattered to the floor, including her flashlight and the cane that had been hooked over her arm.
Rachel whirled toward the vault door and saw that several lights in the library had also come on. The raised voice of a woman echoed from somewhere below, carrying up the grand staircase and along the marble hall toward her.
Rachel bent to her good knee and searched for the fallen fake emeralds, scooping them up and hastily stuffing them into the remaining velvet sack.
She stopped then and glared at the closed safe door.
Dammit. She had to get out of here.
The voice of the woman grew louder, along with the tap of heels on the marble floor. Whoever she was railing at was upstairs now and coming toward the library.
Rachel shoved the pouch of forgeries in her pocket, quickly deciding that one set of emeralds was enough to leave behind. She would get rid of the fakes later, and pray it would be years before anyone noticed the emeralds in safe number sixteen were actually real.
She grabbed her pack, cane, and flashlight, and ran limping from the vault, stopping only long enough to close the huge door and spin the lock. She pushed the bookcase closed, concealing the vault.
Rachel looked toward the hearth on the far side of the room and decided it was out of reach of her crippled knee. She ducked into the storage closet instead, just as the library door swung open.
"I don't care, Kee," the woman shrilled on the other side of the closet door. "You promised we would go to the Renoir party. Then you suddenly decide you just have to come to this godforsaken monstrosity instead. It's freezing in here."
"Jason found the electrical box," the man said softly.
Rachel scrunched herself against the back wall of the closet, unable to suppress a shiver. The man's voice had been low, curt, and thin on patience. But the shrew didn't seem to hear what Rachel could: the quiet building of tension, the ominous calm before the storm.
No, the fool continued railing at the man who could be none other than Mr. Keenan Oakes. Dammit. He wasn't supposed to arrive until Friday.
"I don't know what all the hurry was for," the woman continued. "There's nobody here. You said this place has been empty for three years. Another week wouldn't have mattered."
Rachel silently nodded agreement.
"This might be some grand mansion you've inherited, but it's at the end of nowhere, Kee." Her voice dripped with distaste. "Maine! What in hell is there to do in Maine! It's a two-hour drive to the nearest airport. And this place is filthy. You should have hired someone to come open the house first, and that way we could have arrived after the Renoir party."
Rachel pictured the woman waving her hands about the giant library at the dark honey oak bookcases that reached twelve feet high, the heavy, oversized furniture covered with sheets, and the dusty tomes lining three of the walls.
Keenan Oakes still had nothing to say. Rachel decided he either had the patience of a saint or was deaf.
Rachel closed her eyes and covered her ears. A lover's quarrel was not supposed to be a spectator sport.
The woman suddenly snorted. "But this cold, moldering pile of rocks suits your Neanderthal brain perfectly, doesn't it?"
Rachel tried to decide whether the lady was brave or stupid. She wasn't sure she could take much more of this waiting. She was cramped, uncomfortable, and she agreed with the woman the house was cold. Her right knee throbbed and she ached all over. And she was using every bit of willpower she possessed to keep from sneezing out the dust collecting in her nose.
With the abruptness of a runaway train hitting a mountain, the woman suddenly stopped shouting. "What did you say?" she shrilled.
"I said that was enough, Joan. I told you to wait and come later with Mikaela."
"But I've been planning for us to attend this party for weeks. You said we would go."
"But you're supposed to go with me. All my friends are expecting the two of us."
Joan's voice had lowered to a simper now. Rachel pictured her pouting at Keenan, who stood as tall as a giant and had shoulders as wide as a doorway. Keenan Oakes now had more money than God and looks the devil would envy, if his picture in the newspaper could be believed.
He also had a very stupid girlfriend.
"I said that was enough, Joan. You'll have to go to Monte Carlo alone. Mikaela's due to arrive in a few days, and I intend to be here to meet her."
"Mikaela. It's always Mikaela. Your boat's got a whole crew of babysitters, Kee. She won't miss you for the time it will take to fly to Monte Carlo and back. What's one more week?"
Silence was all Rachel heard for an answer.
"I asked the driver who brought us here to wait. He'll take you back to the airport," came his softly spoken words through the closet door. "And Joan?"
"Yes?" she asked, her voice suddenly sounding hesitant for the first time.
"Don't bother coming back."
Just for a minute, Rachel almost felt sorry for Joan. But only a minute. Any woman who couldn't handle a demigod didn't deserve one. Rachel thought Keenan Oakes was letting the shrew off lightly. Most men wouldn't be so kind for the assault his ego had just received.
The Neanderthal's manhood, apparently, was quite secure.
The light showing through the crack under the closet door suddenly went out, and the large office door slammed shut with a shuddering bang. Rachel released a breath and listened to the tap of Joan's heels on the hall floor. Keenan was probably walking the banished Joan out to the car on this chilly June night. After all, demigods always had the best of manners even if that concession to civilization was only a veneer.
Quietly, still a little rattled at nearly being caught, Rachel stiffly got up and opened the closet door. She picked up her cane, then pulled her cap more firmly down on her head while she tested her right knee, stifling a groan as pain shot all the way up her leg to her teeth.
Damn, this breaking and entering was hard on a body.
The big library was once again completely dark, the storm shutters that protected Sub Rosa blocking out what light the fog-shrouded moon was casting. Being as quiet as she could, Rachel used her little flashlight to guide her, hurriedly limping to the huge library door, intending to open it a crack and check her escape route.
Rachel slowly turned the knob on the huge oak door and tried to pull it open, only to find that it wouldn't budge.
But the knob turned easily. She aimed her light at the floor to see if the door was caught on the rug. Nothing. She looked up and gave another frantic tug on the portal.
And then she froze. The beam of her flashlight was shining on a large hand just above her head. A thick, powerful-looking wrist covered with a thin gold watch and crisp white cuff was holding the huge door shut.
Rachel dropped her head and closed her eyes. Keenan Oakes didn't have any manners after all. A shiver ran up her spine. He wasn't saying or doing anything. He was like a giant predator waiting to see what his prey would do next.
Feeling very much like a mouse under the claw of a cat, Rachel slowly turned around and pointed her light at the floor. Scuffed leather shoes with drying grass on them were the first things she saw. She slowly lifted the beam higher, all the while trying to fight down the panic that was making her tremble.
Damn, the man was big. She moved the light along muscled, jeans-clad legs, up over a flat stomach to a broad shirt-covered chest. She stopped and stared at that chest, nearly choking when she tried to swallow. Never had she seen such a formidable man so close up.
With all the nerve she could pull together, Rachel finally lifted the beam of her light above his chest. The man didn't so much as flinch. But Rachel did, all the blood draining from her face.
Keenan Oakes wasn't a demigod, he was a dark warrior with cold Atlantic-blue eyes pinning her immobile, looking at her from a hard, imperious face.
Rachel snapped off her flashlight.
If she didn't start breathing again, she was going to faint. Which she nearly did, when the man slowly lifted one large hand, took hold of her cap, and pulled it off.
Her heavy single braid of hair fell to her shoulder, her barrette hitting the thick oak door at her back with a loud clink, making her flinch again.
"What are you doing in my house?" he whispered, slowly winding the end of her braid around his hand. He tugged, just slightly, just enough to threaten without actually hurting her. "Who are you?"
Rachel couldn't have spoken if she'd wanted to.
His hand on her braid tightened. "What are you doing here?" he repeated, using her hair to tilt her head back.
The only light in the room came from the crack under the door she was pinned against, and Rachel had a moment's thanks that it wasn't enough to see his expression, for surely she would have really fainted then. As it was, his low and threatening voice, the smell of his pure male strength, and the heat of his tensed muscles radiating toward her were enough to make her question what she was about to do.
"Who are you?" he repeated.
Rachel slowly shifted her weight to her weak right leg and sturdy cane. "I am really sorry," she whispered.
And having given that sincere apology, Rachel drove her left knee into his groin with all the force of her weight behind it.
Keenan Oakes dropped like a stone. He fell to his knees with a groan of agony, his hand in her hair going limp and releasing her braid as he moved to cup himself.
The clasp on her barrette popped open and followed him to the floor, Keenan Oakes landing with a heavy thud and the barrette tumbling to the floor with a loud, resounding clank.
Rachel didn't wait to see if he stayed down. She whirled, opened the door, and ran for her life aware that she'd just enraged a predator who would not suffer this second assault on his manhood quite so nobly.
Her right knee giving her hell for further abusing it, Rachel ran down the wide hall and turned the corner toward the grand staircase that led down to the first floor. She didn't take the stairs, but opened the secret panel at the top of them instead. She stepped into the blackness with all the confidence of someone who knew the passage well and quietly closed the panel behind her.
She took her first relieved breath in nearly an hour, placing her hand over her heart to keep it from jumping out of her chest. She was safe now. No one knew about these tunnels. Their secret had died with Thaddeus Lakeman three years ago and with the architect two weeks later.
Only the architect's daughters knew they existed.
The library had a secret passageway in it, but Rachel had opted to use this one above the stairwell instead. It was a much more direct route for leaving the mansion, much quicker to the outside entrance just above the Gulf of Maine.
Even though she had been caught sneaking around, she was glad she hadn't used the one in the library to escape. Keenan Oakes would have discovered the tunnels then, and Rachel still needed them to be secret.
She had to find Thadd's secret room and her father's blueprints for the boats. And there was still the matter of the fake emeralds in her pocket. Damn. She should have just left them in the vault.
Satisfied that her heart had settled into a steadier beat, Rachel turned her flashlight back on and carefully started down the steps that wound into the blackness beyond the beam of her light. Using her cane for support, she turned left, then right, walking along a narrow corridor that led to more steps. The smell of the ocean slowly grew stronger, and Rachel's spirits lifted.
She had escaped. And though she lived right next door, she doubted Keenan Oakes would recognize her if they did happen to meet in town. He couldn't have seen past the beam of her flashlight, its glare protecting her identity.
She finally reached the entrance to the cave and immediately shut off her flashlight. She worked the hidden latch from memory, opening the iron bars that protected the tunnels from unwanted intruders, both two- and four-legged. She slid through the bushes hiding the gate, careful not to disturb any branches, hearing the well-crafted lock clink softly behind her.
Rachel sat down on an outcrop of granite and slowly massaged her knee. It was throbbing like the devil now. She glared at the cane leaning against the rock beside her. The damn thing was going to be with her another week now, after tonight's little fiasco.
She turned and looked up, trying to see the mansion through the fog, and breathed in the chilly air and let it out with a softly spoken curse. She was going to have to visit Sub Rosa again. Soon. Before Keenan Oakes took inventory of all his newly inherited possessions.
Crouched on his hands and knees on the dusty carpet of the library, Kee took careful shallow breaths, waiting for the pain to ease enough so he could move.
The little witch had kneed him. She had come sneaking out of the closet, apologized, and then smartly taken him down.
Who the hell was she? And what was she doing in Sub Rosa?
One minute he'd been leaning against the desk in the dark, contemplating the fact that he'd just managed to lose another girlfriend, and the next thing he knew, he was watching a small black figure follow the beam of a flashlight across the library floor. Until she had turned around and faced him, he had thought his intruder was a kid a teenage delinquent intent on pilfering from his new home.
But she was no kid. Not with that head of hair and those big and scared eyes. And on her limping escape down the hall, Kee had noticed quite clearly her unmistakably feminine, heart-shaped butt.
He reached over and picked up the cap on the floor beside his hand. The smell of roses drifted upward, and he lifted the black knit cap to his face.
Roses. He'd noticed the same smell earlier, when he had walked from the car into the house. Had his thief hidden in the bushes?
Impossible. Kee knew security systems, and Sub Rosa's system was state of the art. Until he had turned it off at the gate, nothing larger than a mouse could have gotten onto the property.
So where had she come from? And what had she wanted?
"Kee? Where's Joan go Hey, man. What happened to you?"
Kee looked up to find Jason standing in the doorway with a surprised look on his face. "Did you catch her?" Kee asked.
Jason frowned at him. "Joan?" His eyes widened, and he grinned as he shook his head. "She did this to you?"
Kee finally stood up, the knit cap still in his hand. He held it up for Jason to see. "No, not Joan. The other woman."
"What other woman, boss?" Jason asked, suddenly serious.
Kee stiffly walked into the hall and looked toward the stairs. "Did you come up the front way?"
He turned back to Jason. "Then you must have seen her." He held the hat up again, at shoulder height this time. "A short woman, dressed in black, limping and using a cane. She headed for the stairs."
Jason shook his head.
"Well, dammit, find her! Before she leaves the grounds. I want to know what she was after."
Kee didn't have to ask twice. Jason all but ran in the same direction the intruder had taken.
"And find Duncan!" Kee shouted after him. "And tell him what happened."
That last order given, Kee hit the wall switch, flooding the library with light. He walked to the closet and looked inside, and immediately spotted the crumpled backpack sitting against the far wall. He picked it up and opened it, and pulled out an equally crumpled towel. Other than that, it was empty. He turned and looked around the library.
What had she been after?
Kee shook his head, disgusted with himself. If nothing else, his thief had certainly gotten an earful. She had been sitting in the closet the whole time Joan had methodically listed off each and every one of his impressive flaws.
Which was probably why the lady had been daring enough to take such a dangerous shot at him.
Kee slowly walked back to the library door and looked down the hall in the direction she had run. Where had she disappeared to that Jason hadn't seen her when he came up the stairs? Could she still be in the house?
Kee stepped into the hall, intending to find out, when his foot sent something skidding across the marble floor. He walked across the hall and picked up the object, turning it over in his hand to examine it.
It was a hair clip. Heavy, metal, in the shape of a lobster boat. The light glinted off the colorful enamel.
It wasn't a cheap hair clip, but a finely crafted piece of jewelry. The boat was white and red, with a delicate gold chain wrapped around the miniature pulley that hoisted the lobster traps onto the boat. Several tiny traps sat on the stern, and orange and green buoys littered the open deck just behind the tiny wheelhouse.
Delicate. Precise. Handcrafted.
Kee remembered then the sound of something hitting the floor at about the same time he had.
The hair clip belonged to his intruder.
Well, hell. What sort of thief wore expensive jewelry to a break-in? For that matter, what idiot broke into a house when she needed a cane just to get around?
Kee closed his fist over the clip and adjusted the front of his pants. He was going to ache like the devil for at least a week. His intruder, who'd barely come up to his chin, was suicidal. If she'd missed by even an inch, he might have instinctively retaliated and done her serious harm.
He adjusted his pants again, deciding he still might.
Just as soon as he discovered who she was.
Which he would. She was a local, considering her taste in hair clips. And the reckless lady didn't know it, but she had just crossed the path of a professional hunter.
Copyright © 2004 by Janet Chapman