Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hunter Longfellow's best work is reporting from war zones. His other passion is tracking down art thieves. An anonymous tip leads him to three sisters who advertise the ability to match couples to their soulmates. He suspects the sisters are running an antiquities theft ring, but the only way to prove it is to join their couples-only tour to Italy. For that he needs a girlfriend. Reporter Genevieve Grey's journalism professors called her fearless. When she discovers that the famous—and deliciously handsome—Hunter Longfellow is tracking down a story but needs a girlfriend for an undercover assignment, she jumps at the chance. He claims it could be dangerous. She doesn't care. This is the chance of a lifetime. Will the story threaten not only her life but her heart as well?
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|Publisher:||The Wild Rose Press|
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Hunter Longfellow sprinted down a dark alley in Seattle, Washington's Pioneer Square, in a downpour, a neon bar sign and the occasional patrol car his only light. It was a little after ten o'clock in the evening, early for the night-clubbers, but way past bedtime for the kids he'd been asked to locate. This was old Seattle, a tourist haven by day and something else entirely by night. Pioneer Square had its tall brick buildings that had survived Seattle's earthquakes, alleyways that were something out of a Jekyll and Hyde movie, mangy cats, and people who looked out from behind closed doors. The thirteen- and fourteen-year-old kids couldn't have picked a scarier place to hide.
On the street at the end of the alley, another patrol car eased past, slowed, and then continued on its way.
He glanced at the text he'd received from his ex-girlfriend that morning. Mary was a middle school teacher, married now and with a second child on the way. She'd wanted to know if he'd found her students. He texted her that he was closing in, then hoped he was right. He pocketed his cell as the same patrol car swept past again. Coincidence? Or were they following the same lead he had?
Mary and he had remained friends after their break-up, which surprised him, and she invited him to share all the holidays with her family that normal people celebrated. He didn't always attend, but the invitations hadn't stopped.
He reached the address her clues had indicated. It was the last door on his left before the alley dead-ended into a brick wall.
Time to make his move.
He tried the doorknob. Unlocked, which proved his theory that those inside were amateurs. Agitated voices rose behind the door. He calculated he had two options: enter with guns blazing and scare them out of a year's growth, or pretend he was a lost tourist.
He chose option three — the direct approach.
He slammed the door open. It banged against the wall and sent dust and broken cobwebs flying into the air. The room was lit by a single bulb that dangled from the ceiling on a dirty cord. Three boys, ages twelve to fourteen and still dressed in their school uniforms, surrounded the Native American mask they'd stolen from the Burke Museum. They looked in his direction and froze.
He admired their choice. The wood mask represented the creator-eagle of the Makah tribe and was designed to fit over a dancer's head. He'd promised Mary he would find the mask and return it to its rightful owners. He paused, the words "rightful owners" thundering through his thoughts. His father would have said that the hundred-year-old mask belonged with their people, not in a museum.
"Hello, boys," Hunter said.
The teenagers' eyes were wide, and their mouths gaped like fish gasping for breath. One boy fainted and a second shook like a Nordic wind had blown into the room. The third held his ground, a tall, beefy-looking kid with broad shoulders and a world-owes-me expression in his gaze.
Hunter didn't need to ask why the boys had stolen the mask. Mary had filled him in on the story, as well as given him pictures of John, Cory, and T.J. One of them had had the good sense to text Mary for help. The why had involved the school bully, T.J, who Hunter guessed was the one acting like a tough guy. T.J.'s specialty was threatening kids with harming their siblings if they didn't do his bidding.
"Get out of here, Indian," T.J. said.
Hunter stifled a laugh. Classic bully tactics, using name-calling to push the enemy off balance. He ignored T.J. and focused on the one he recognized from the picture as John. "You okay?"
John's expression brightened as he nodded and helped the boy who'd fainted to stand. "I knew you'd come."
T.J. moved to block the view of the mask. "Unless this guy is here to help negotiate a higher price for the mask, I'm not interested."
"We have to give the mask back," John said. "Mrs. Woolhousen said ..."
T.J. turned on John, his hand raised. "You called our teacher?"
Hunter closed the distance, stepping between them to block T.J. from John and Cory. Time to cut to the chase. "That's enough, T.J. How soon before your buyers arrive?"
"I'm not telling. They won't like it if the mask isn't here when they get here."
Hunter paused to take another look at T.J. He was the bully on the playground, but who bullied him? That type of behavior usually trickled downhill, like a polluted stream. "We should leave, then." Hunter reached around and grabbed the mask.
"I can't leave," T.J. said, his voice, for once, sounding more like a kid's.
Hunter nodded to the door. "We're all leaving together. I don't leave people behind. And, T.J., you and I will have a chat about your buyers. I'll make sure they don't bother you again."
"Are you going to arrest us?" Cory said, finding his voice.
"I'm not the police. I'm the guy who's here to help you return the mask to the museum."CHAPTER 2
The next afternoon, across town, Genevieve Grey, reporter for the Daily Beat's society page, was rushing to her assignment to cover a wedding. She was late. Lately it seemed she was always late. That wasn't like her. She hadn't lost her desire to find the core of a story, but she just wished the stories she covered weren't usually so predictable.
The threat of rain had driven the wedding guests under a canopy of tents lit by thousands of twinkling pink and silver lights while guests waited for the bride's entrance. Genevieve fast-walked past them on three-inch heels to the entrance to the Matchmaker Café. Nestled beneath the Cascade Mountains, in the heart of a retail area nicknamed the Village, the café prepared for a wedding of one of its owners, Fiona McBride, a fitting name on a day like today.
Genevieve slipped into the café and nodded at the bride, who stood in the middle of the room looking more like a statue carved out of white marble than a flesh-and-blood woman. Fiona had sent Genevieve daily updates over the past few months, so all there was left to do was to take notes and await the ceremony. Later, she'd fill in whether or not the bride-to-be was happy or resigned, as right now it was difficult to tell.
Was that how someone would describe her expression when — or if — her fiancé ever got around to picking a wedding date? Was that the reason she'd lost her interest in covering weddings, or was it something else? When she was a student in the journalism department at the University of Washington, her professors called her fearless when she was tracking down a story. When had she lost her edge?
Genevieve washed the prickly thoughts from her mind and concentrated on the bride, continuing to take notes. The bride's dress was borrowed, and yet the fabric fit her body like liquid silk, as though made for her by magical creatures. Fiona was the youngest of the three sisters who owned the café housing their unique matchmaking business. Fiona's blonde hair was pulled away from her face into a bun, giving her a smooth, sophisticated look, but the knuckles of her tightly clenched hands at her sides shone as white as her dress.
Although the bride looked calm now, little things had gone wrong, a situation not unexpected, in Genevieve's experience. The roses were a peach shade instead of the requested blush color. The wedding cake had arrived, but the decorations were not as requested. Ropes of frosting were shaped like ivy and swirled around the five-tiered cake instead of white and silver seashells.
What was not expected by anyone was that the groom couldn't find the bride's ring.
"He's an idiot."
Hearing Lady Roselyn's comment, Genevieve kept her focus on watching the guests arrive from her vantage point near a bay window. Lady Roselyn was the eldest of the three sisters and insisted people address her by her title. Genevieve had learned early in her career that a key to covering a wedding or engagement party was to keep as invisible as possible.
Lady Roselyn had made this same "He's an idiot" comment regarding the groom at least a half-dozen times over the last few minutes, and each time her voice had risen higher. She paced the length of the café, her ankle-length, summer-sky-blue gown swishing around her.
"We could postpone the wedding until the ring is found," said Bridget, the middle sister. She normally wore cream or white but had felt it wasn't appropriate to compete with the bride and had chosen a dress of pale, buttercup-yellow chiffon.
Lady Roselyn stopped pacing, looking like a teakettle ready to explode. "Bite your tongue. Fiona and Liam have postponed this wedding too many times already. Find a ring. We must have something that will work."
Fiona rose from the sofa and moved to stand beside Genevieve. She moved fluidly, as though her feet barely touched the ground. "I apologize. You must think we're horrid. I'm sure the weddings you cover are never this chaotic."
Genevieve smiled, fingering a gold chain around her neck. "You'd be surprised, but I may have a solution for your ring problem." Genevieve removed the chain and slipped off a ring with a sapphire stone in the center. "It belonged to my grandmother. You're welcome to borrow it for the wedding."
Emotion flooded Fiona's expression as tears pooled in her eyes. "You barely know me."
Genevieve squeezed Fiona's hand. "Women should stick together. That's the advice I heard growing up, from both my mother and grandmother. The ring will bring you luck." Genevieve placed the ring in the palm of Fiona's hand. "It will be both something blue and something borrowed."
A carved wooden door toward the back of the café opened. From Genevieve's vantage point, the sky beyond the open door looked as though it were the dead of night instead of two o'clock in the afternoon. Everyone in the café turned toward the sound.
Standing on the threshold was a petite young woman with short-cropped hair and a heart-shaped face. She was barefoot, in a dress of layers of apple-green and butterfly-purple silk.
Bridget shouted with joy and rushed over to the young woman, wrapping her in a warm embrace.
Fiona smiled for the first time. "It is great to see Nissa after all these years. I'm thrilled that she's come for my wedding, but I'm still surprised she's here. She always said she hated big cities."
Lady Roselyn said, "News reached our halfsister that you were getting married. Like the rest of us, Nissa is a matchmaker at heart. She knew you wouldn't go on a honeymoon with Liam unless there was someone to take your place. Our family's rules state that there must be three sisters to help coordinate our tours and our matchmaking."
Fiona closed her hand around the ring and smiled toward Genevieve. "Things are about to get interesting. Come, I'll introduce you to our half-sister. I know you'll like her."CHAPTER 3
A few days later, Lady Roselyn walked down to the creek, searching for alone time, and chose the wooden bench near the grassy bank. A rain squall had blown through the area the night before and left the morning smelling fresh and clean.
Fiona and Liam's wedding had been a fantasy come true. She had never seen her sister Fiona happier or more in love. While Fiona and Liam were on their honeymoon, their half-sister Nissa fit in as comfortably as a favorite pair of slippers, and the sisters' matchmaking business had a new romance tour nearly booked and ready for its launch. They had room for one more couple, but Nissa said she already knew who would fill the spot. Lady Roselyn hadn't asked how she knew. Nissa was like Fiona and had a romantic sense about these things.
And to put icing on the cake, Andrew, the man who'd been sent by the Matchmaker Council to review them, had given them his seal of approval and returned to headquarters.
An unusual sound disturbed her quiet thoughts, and she looked up from her journal. Why was it that even after all these years she could always sense Claude's presence?
She turned as he came into view. He was tall, straight, with well-groomed hair, and as dashing as the first time they'd met: the eve of their wedding day. She'd fallen in love with him at first sight. Her euphoria had lasted throughout the wedding ceremony and the month-long honeymoon they'd spent in the south of France. If she could pinpoint a change in how she felt, it would have to be the day they returned. On that day, she'd announced that she and her sisters would continue their hereditary positions as matchmakers. Claude had wanted her to relinquish her position and put him in charge.
"You're not welcome here." Her voice was sharp. She was no longer that young, naïve girl in her twenties.
"Sitting next to you by the creek, or in general?" His voice was silk, his eyes velvet. "I brought you a present. A peace offering."
"It's too late for gifts."
He walked over and placed a square box on her bench and lifted the lid. A heart-shaped cameo brooch surrounded by diamonds lay cushioned in black tissue. The woman's expression, carved from the inside of a mother-of-pearl shell, looked pensive, as though she wondered if she could ever trust again.
Lady Roselyn knew each hand-carved cameo was unique, as though it had a story to tell. In many ways they were like people. She blinked, swiping at the moisture on her cheeks, surprised at the sudden rush of emotion.
"I remembered you liked them," he said.
She let out a hollow laugh. He knew her too well. She closed the lid of the cameo box. "Did you win this in a poker game?"
He chewed on his lower lip as though fighting back an angry response. "I don't gamble anymore. It's an expensive habit. It makes a person vulnerable."
She nodded slowly, pushing the box aside. "I've filed for divorce."
"I heard, and that's why I'm here. I won't contest. You have every right to ask for a divorce."
"You tried to kill me."
He looked over at the creek. "I could say the same of you. I was young, angry, and full of misguided ambition. I regret what happened between us. I'm a changed man."
She clenched her hands in her lap. Could people really change? She cleared her throat. "What about the doors? The doors in the café are supposed to open into magical adventures back in time, adventures that we control. Instead we no longer know where our couples will end up. Until the issue is resolved, we've resorted to matchmaking tours."
"I know you blame me for the doors malfunctioning, but how could it be me? The doors are enchanted. I wouldn't know how to change anything about them. You have to believe me."
"No, Claude, I don't have to believe you."CHAPTER 4
One week later, a spring thunderstorm, followed by a torrential downpour, reminded the Pacific Northwest the reason there were so many trees and flowers — it rained ... a lot. The wedding was a distant sweet memory. After the ring mishap, the ceremony had gone off smoothly, and Genevieve's ring had been returned, but she almost wished it hadn't been. She thought her grandmother would have liked the idea of Fiona having the ring.
Genevieve huddled under her apple-green umbrella as she read a newspaper article and waited in line at her favorite bakery in the Village: Emma's Boulangerie. Genevieve had grown up nearby and knew all the owners in the Village, Emma's bakery included. Genevieve wouldn't think of going anywhere else. Those in the Village were like her family.
She was meeting her fiancé, Frank Griffin, and if history were any indicator, he was already inside. He liked being early. Frank also worked at the Daily Beat and for some reason wanted to meet with her this morning.
Frank had joined the paper five years ago and had quickly gained the owner's trust. It wasn't that Frank didn't deserve the vote of confidence; it was that Genevieve felt pushed aside, since the owner was her mother. She didn't blame her. Genevieve had never showed interest in assuming more responsibility, mostly because she felt awkward broaching the topic. She didn't want her mother to think that her daughter's interest in running the newspaper meant she wanted her mother to step down. Watching Frank move further into a take-over position over the past year had left her conflicted. Shouldn't she be happy her fiancé and future husband would soon be running the Daily Beat?
She shook away what she considered foolish thoughts. She just wished ... She paused, remembering an old phrase her grandmother would say: If wishes were wings, we could all fly.
Genevieve edged forward a whole inch and realized the rule was true that when you were late for an appointment there was always a long line to buy a latté and a warm pastry.
But if she didn't get inside soon, her shoes would be ruined, and her black suit soaked down to her skin. Not a great way to start her day. Genevieve tried to position her umbrella better to avoid the rain, but the wind made it difficult. She tried again — and hit the guy in front of her in the shoulders.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thief of Hearts"
Copyright © 2018 Pam Binder.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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