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Authors: Elisabeth Naughton

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance

Stolen Heat

BOOK: Stolen Heat
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S
TOLEN
H
EAT
E
LISABETH
N
AUGHTON

LOVE SPELL       

The Last Good-bye

Slowly, she pushed up on her elbow, pausing when the mattress creaked. One look confirmed Pete was still sleeping. His head was tipped her way, his mouth slightly open. The little bit of light coming through the slit in the curtains highlighted blond hair falling across his forehead, the shadow of beard on his jaw. Even his long eyelashes, blond at the root, darkening to a warm brown at the tips. She listened to the steady draw of his breath, watched as his bare, muscular chest rose and fell, and felt a little of her heart break all over again.

She was doing the right thing. Leaving now before it was too late. Before he was more embroiled in this whole mess. She now knew Busir was just a hired thug, that this went higher than she’d thought, into the SCA, possibly into INTERPOL. If this was ever going to be over, she had to figure out who was behind it all. What she’d seen and how it all meshed together. She knew where she had to start, and she knew she didn’t want Pete tagging along. Not when she was starting to question his involvement from the very beginning. What if she’d been wrong about him?

Trapped miserably between her heart and mind, she closed her eyes, fought back the tears, opened them again and stared down at his features. But even with that debate still raging, she knew, deep in her heart, that he was the one. The love of her life. The happily-ever-after she’d never have. It didn’t matter what he’d done or who he’d been before they’d been together. When he’d been hers, he’d been everything she’d ever wanted.

She held her breath as she leaned close to brush her lips softly over his. Just a whisper of a touch. Just one last kiss.

For my mom, Georgiana.
Thank you for always being right where I needed you most.

C
HAPTER
O
NE

Worthington Fine Auction House
Downtown New York City

All things considered, she looked pretty good for a six-year-old corpse.

Katherine Meyer checked her reflection in the bathroom mirror one last time and smoothed a few wild strands of hair back from her face. The black slacks and matching jacket were perfect, not one thing about them the slightest bit memorable. No one glancing her direction tonight would ever see anything other than the professional assistant she resembled, and that was precisely the way she wanted it. The less attention she drew, the safer everyone would be.

Her stomach rolled as she turned down the long hallway. Her sensible flats clicked along the cement floor. Muffled music from the party out front drifted to her ears. Ahead, a security guard looked up from his post at the end of the corridor and gave her the once-over.

She smiled what she hoped was a confident grin as she approached and flashed the I.D. badge she’d lifted from a Worthington’s employee days before. The picture had been digitally altered to match her current disguise—dark brown, bob-style wig, blue color contacts, tortoiseshell glasses. As long as the man in front of her didn’t look too closely, she was home free.

“Hold up there.”

So much for easy.

The guard stepped from behind the counter, blocking her path, displaying at least six feet, three inches of hulking muscle. He wore the standard blue uniform, had shortcropped dark hair, was big and brawny and the epitome of the straitlaced no-one-gets-by-me-without-a-pass gate-keeper.

Kat took a quick breath and glanced at the name tag on the man’s chest—James Johnson—then at his waist where a utility belt held a two-way radio.

No guns. Not that she could see anyway. And as far she was concerned, that was the best news she’d had so far tonight.

“Only authorized personnel past this point,” he said in a gruff voice. “I’ll need to verify your I.D.”

She smiled, unclipped the badge from her jacket and handed it to him with hands she somehow managed to keep from shaking. “Big crowd out there tonight,” she said casually.

Breathe, Kat. Just breathe.

His eyes flicked from the badge up to her face. “What’s your business in the storage room, Ms. Anderson?”

“I’m working with Marsha Griffin, the liaison between Worthington’s and the Odyssey Gallery. Just doing one final walk-through before Ms. Griffin arrives and the auction begins. You know how anal some of these independent gallery owners can be on their big night.” She rolled her eyes for effect.

“It’s Jim, right?” She reached for the badge before he could study it in depth again. “We met about two months ago when I was doing work with the Met.”

His brow wrinkled in confusion, like he was having trouble remembering back.

Perfect.
Just what she wanted.

She clipped the badge to her jacket again, gave a small
smile and did her best to look nonchalant. “How’s your daughter? Broken arm heal up okay?”

His eyes widened in surprise. It was obvious he was searching his memory for their last conversation. Too bad he wouldn’t find it.

“Uh, yeah.” He scratched the top of his head. “Sarah gets the cast off on Tuesday. How did you—”

“I bet she’s thrilled.” Kat took a step around him and headed for the steel door at his back. Distract, dismay, then detour. That was her life motto. Or, at least, her
new
life motto. “Broke my arm when I was seven. Longest six weeks of my life.”

She paused at the door, looked over her shoulder and lifted her brow as she waited.

He stared at her a full second, then gave his head a small shake and turned. “Oh, right. Sorry. You’ll need to sign in first, Ms. Anderson. It’s standard procedure.”

“Sure.” Kat took the clipboard, signed her alias and waited while he unlocked the door from his station. “Thanks, Jim. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

She eased into the room and closed the door behind her. Leaning back against the cool metal, she let out a long breath. Her performance had been near Oscar worthy.

She reached up to wipe her brow. Top-notch acting, but sweating buckets. It was a wonder Jim-the-Sentry hadn’t noticed. One tiny mistake like that could send her to an early grave.

Or late, considering how you looked at it.

Since, legally, Katherine Meyer had died in a car bomb in Egypt, she couldn’t possibly be breaking into one of the most famous auction houses in the world. But here she was. The trick now was simply to stay off everyone’s radar. The trick
always
was to stay dead.

She glanced around the storage room. The space was big, at least thirty feet by thirty feet. Long tables were lined up in linear rows and covered in black fabric. Artifacts lay
positioned on the tables, and stock cards with printed numbers sat in front of each piece.

She checked her watch. In a few minutes the room would be a flurry of activity, auction house specialists and assistants moving pieces through the adjoining door at her right to the auction room stage. That was why she’d waited to make her move. Chaos was the perfect way to cover her tracks. She had mere moments before her window of opportunity was up, though, and she needed to find
it
before that happened.

Wasting no time, she wove through tables of Egyptian artifacts and tried not to look at the Late Period jewelry, the Middle Kingdom carvings. Inside, though, her blood warmed as the past surrounded her. And with it, the dread that had been dogging her for longer than she could remember.

She pushed the feeling away and kept searching. Panic rose when she neared the back of the room and still couldn’t find it. On a deep breath she hoped would calm her pulse, she stopped and turned a slow circle. And that was when a sparkle three tables over caught her eye.

Her hand shook as she crossed the floor quickly and reached for the gold statuette of the crouching pharaoh, no more than three inches long, stuck between a chipped stone relief of Queen Tiy and a sphinx statue. The metal was cool to the touch; the gold chain looped through a small hole in the back, soft against her fingers. It was heavier than she remembered, and while it looked solid, Kat knew without even checking that it was actually hollow.

After all this time, it was here. Just like she’d hoped. He hadn’t sold it after all.

With quick fingers she unbuttoned her jacket and took the forgery out of the small front pack she’d attached to her waist. She refused to think about why he was selling the relic now. Refused to acknowledge that whatever sentimental
value it might have once had for him was now gone.

Sentimental value? Yeah, right.

Okay, so there was still a little twinge in her heart when she thought of him, but her brain was working these days. And there was no way she’d ever make the same mistakes she’d made back then.

Thank goodness for baggy jackets and guards who didn’t pat you down. She said a quick prayer of thanks to St. Jude and Sister Mary Francis, the woman who’d taught her all about hopeless causes, and slipped the artifact into the pouch. After repositioning the forgery on the black drape of fabric, she rebuttoned her jacket, then headed for the exit.

The knob on the door rattled, stopping her feet two steps from freedom. A muffled, angry female voice drifted through the metal, followed by the jangle of keys.

Kat’s heart rate jacked up.

They’d figured out she was a fake. Jim-the-Sentry must have called someone when her signature didn’t match those on file. It was only a matter of time until they barged in and cuffed her, before her cover was blown and the pendant…

She darted a look to her left, spotted the door to the stage and knew it was her only option.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she muttered as she punched in the access code on the keypad and prayed it was the right one. If her source was wrong, she was toast.

The light flashed red twice before finally clicking green. The door gave with a pop just as the exterior door to the hall burst open. Kat squeezed through the small opening, turned and shut the metal door with her shoulder without pausing to see who came barreling into the room she’d just exited. She saw a heavy table to her right and muscled it against the door.

Breathing hard from the exertion, she paused to scan
the area. The back of the stage was dark, but voices and music from the party were much louder here. A velvet curtain hung between her and the festivities. She considered her options. She knew from studying the blueprints if she turned left it would take her to the kitchen. To her right she’d have access to the offices and the elaborate hallway system that ran through the building. Her best option if she wanted to disappear.

“There’s no one in here,” a male voice said from inside the room at her back.

“Dammit!” a female exclaimed. “This door’s blocked. Call security. Have them search the stage and the auction room. I want that woman found!”

Kat moved to her right. Just as she reached the hallway opening, a man in a suit blocked her exit.

He was busily studying papers in the file folder he held when she nearly plowed into him. He glanced up with startled green eyes that quickly sharpened and focused. “What are you doing back here? Let me see your I.D.”

Shit. So much for options.

She didn’t think, simply charged the curtain and her last hope for escape.

To her luck, the auction room itself was empty but for an elderly man placing programs on each of the plush chairs. Kat stumbled across the stage and nearly tripped down the three small steps onto the expensive carpet below. She stiffened her shoulders and tried to look like she belonged as she moved quickly toward the open double doors at the end of the room.

Just then the curtain whipped back and the suit she’d almost run over appeared, looking seriously ticked off. “Stop her!”

Kat didn’t hang around to find out what would happen next. She beat feet through the main double doors to the lobby and pulled up short when she saw the massive crowd
gathered there. One look told her she wasn’t going out the front door, not without causing a scene.

Oh, man. She was quickly running out of options.

Please just let me get out of one more mess.

Darting a look around and seeing her last hope for escape, she wove through the crowd and headed for the kitchen.

Her nerves shot up another level as she unbuttoned her black jacket, slipped it off her shoulders and looped it over her arm. Carefully, she unhooked the front pouch and tucked it in the folds of her coat. A look back confirmed security had finally wised up to what was happening. They stood with the suit at the auction room doors, searching the crowd for her.

She ducked behind a heavyset man nursing a glass of champagne and waited until the kitchen door swung open wide and a waiter appeared carrying a tray of bubbly. And just as she was about to make a beeline for the kitchen and her last shot at freedom, she heard it. A deep, familiar baritone.

She whipped around so fast she nearly took out the man in front of her. Muttering apologies, she slipped into the shadows in the corner of the room and cautiously looked toward the lobby’s main entrance, where two couples had just stepped into the room. Her mind screamed,
run!
But it was already too late. The crowd parted, and then he was there. And she couldn’t look away even if she’d wanted to.

Just her luck, he was better looking than she’d remembered. His nose was straight, his eyes the same captivating smoky gray, his hair as dark blond and wind-ruffled as she’d always liked.

His body hadn’t changed much in the years since she’d seen him last—he was still strong and broad and, she was sure, chiseled beneath that spendy tuxedo like always—but
for some reason he seemed taller than she remembered. Bigger everywhere. Larger than life. More…alive than even she’d fantasized.

And though she hated to admit it—even to herself—she’d definitely fantasized over the years. Then berated herself for being a complete and utter fool.

Peter Kauffman.
Her
Pete.

The group around him chatted as he reached for the coat of the woman he was obviously with. She shrugged out of the garment, revealing a slinky, winter white gown, then turned and placed her hand on Pete’s chest. With a sultry grin, she eased up on her toes and kissed that jaw Kat had nibbled and licked and tasted a hundred times herself.

No, not hers, Kat realized as she stood there staring. He’d never really been hers, had he?

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Jolted out of her reverie, Kat jerked around.

“You’re supposed to be serving drinks,” the man said with a scowl. His name badge identified him as Antonio, the head bartender.

Her brain was complete fuzz, but one thing got through: this yahoo thought she was a waitress.

Conversation behind her quieted. In the silence, she could hear the blood pounding in her ears. Just as she opened her mouth to rattle off a lame excuse, footsteps quickly crossed the marble at her back.

Oh…
shit!

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I…it won’t happen again.”

The footsteps drew closer. Kat darted around Antonio, used his body as a shield and sped toward the kitchen door before security cued in on what was happening.

“Hey. Wait a minute.”

Kat’s eyes widened at the familiar voice at her back. Her legs wobbled as she tried to push her way past guests. She could hear Pete behind her, growing closer. Panic and a
sea of bodies closed in around her, choking the air in her lungs. A strand of hair from the stupid wig whipped across her face and stung her eyes. Why wouldn’t these people move? Couldn’t they tell she needed to get out…
now?

“Can I be of assistance, sir?”

Kat paused long enough to peer back through the crowd, hoping the people around her provided enough cover. And that was when she realized coming here was an even bigger mistake than she’d ever imagined.

Two men stood on the far side of the foyer, past where Pete and Antonio were muttering words she couldn’t hear. They had obviously just stepped into the lobby, their shoulders and hair covered with a smattering of snowflakes. One was hidden in shadows, but the other, the one with the buzz cut…his was a face Kat would never forget.

BOOK: Stolen Heat
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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