About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
There were some men who wore elegance like a second skin. Dante Malcolm was one of them.
He guided the cigarette boat through the black water like a knife, sending a fine spray of mist into the air. The moon was full, the stars bright, and the night crisp and clear. The smell of sea salt and lavender perfumed the air. It was the perfect night for a party. And an even better night for a burglary.
His tuxedo was hand-tailored and silk, his bow tie perfectly tied, and his shoes properly shined. His black hair was cut precisely, so that it would fall rakishly across his forehead instead of appearing windblown.
There was something about wealth that had always appealed to him—the glitter of jewels, the smell of expensive perfume, the not-so-subtle way the elite bragged about their latest toys or investments. It was all a game. And he’d always been a winner. But there had been a small thorn in his side—or maybe it was his conscience—over the past few months.
He was in love with her. Every stubborn, vivacious, persistent, gorgeous inch of her. And that was turning out to be more of a problem than he’d anticipated. Love had never been in the cards for him. Not until he’d crossed paths with a woman whose beauty had literally stopped him in his tracks. Her stunning features had lured him in, but her intelligence had kept him coming back for more.
She knew the world he was accustomed to—the world of the titled and wealthy British elite. Her father had been a prominent member of society, and he’d married an American actress who preferred the drama in her life instead of on the screen. Liv had a sister—a twin—and though he’d only been thirteen at the time, he remembered the news coverage when Elizabeth Rothschild had gone missing.
The guilt Liv carried from that day her sister vanished was what had forged her future. She’d never stopped looking for her. The investigations had turned up no clue to her whereabouts, and even Dante’s searches in the MI6 database had returned nothing. Not a hospital visit or a fingerprint taken. The assumption was that Elizabeth Rothschild was dead. He tended to agree.
But Liv had never lost hope, and Elizabeth’s disappearance had motivated Liv to go into law enforcement and ultimately join Interpol so she would have the resources she needed to find her sister. What had been a surprise to Liv was that she was a damned good agent. What had been a surprise to him was that he’d started looking forward to their paths crossing from time to time. Fortunate circumstances had combined their efforts on this case.
Which was why they were meeting at the Marquis de Carmaux’s château in the south of France. He enjoyed working with Liv, and if he had his way, they’d continue to work together. And play together. In his mind, life couldn’t get any better. He could have it all. And he did.
La Château Saint-Germain was lit like a beacon atop the rugged cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a pink monstrosity with towers and turrets and more than fifty rooms that rarely got used. Expensive cars lined the narrow road that wound up the steep bluff, headlights beaming for as far as the eye could see as their occupants waited for the valets to take the keys. He checked his watch, noting that Liv should already be inside.
Dante eased off the throttle, and the boat coasted up to the dock. He tossed the rope to the valet, who tied it to the mooring, and then he stepped up onto the dock, adjusting his cuffs and bow tie.
The pathway from the dock led all the way up to the château, the grounds divided into three steep tiers. The wooden steps were lined with hanging lanterns, and the trees were decorated with lights. Once at the top, Dante sauntered along the stone-paved walkway toward the house and retrieved his invitation from the inside of his jacket pocket to present to the doorman. It was time to work.
The Marquis de Carmaux had terrible taste in wine and women, but his art was exceptional. His personal collection was going on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the next year, so he’d decided to throw a farewell party so the social elite could not only praise him for his generosity, but be envious of something they’d never be able to get their hands on.
Dante had been fortunate enough to be born into the British upper crust where wealth was passed from one generation to the next, easily accumulated with buying or selling real estate, and easily squandered on a whim. He was titled, a lord no less, and he’d been educated at the best schools, one of his classmates being the future king of England. He also had an unusual talent for math—he could solve any problem in his head, no matter how difficult. It gave him a natural aptitude for winning at cards.
He had many other talents as well—an ease with languages and the ability to see patterns amid what seemed to be nothing but random occurrences—which was why MI6 had wanted him so badly. To a wealthy young man of twenty-two who had multiple degrees in mathematics and was quickly getting bored of the party life that all his contemporaries seemed to live for, becoming an intelligence agent for his country had seemed like the right choice.
It had been around the same time that he’d met a man by the name of Simon Locke.
Simon had introduced him to the art of stealing. He’d given Dante something that no amount of money could provide, that seduced him as no woman had, and that international espionage couldn’t satisfy, though it came a close second. Simon had given him an adrenaline rush that was more intense than any drug and just as addictive.
Simon Locke had given him a purpose. Dante felt no remorse when it came to taking things that belonged to others. Because he only took from those who could afford to lose what he stole, from those who had taken what wasn’t rightfully theirs. His jobs always had an ulterior motive. He would collect the item that didn’t truly belong to the current owner, and he’d take a second piece of his choosing as his commission.
He’d met Simon in a Belgian prison while on assignment. MI6 had set up Dante’s arrest, along with a suspected terrorist he’d been drinking with in a pub, by doing a checkpoint sweep for drunk-and-disorderlies. His mission was to get information about recent bombings in Brussels. He and the terrorist had been locked in a cell together, but Simon had been thrown in with them, having been caught up in the same sweep. He’d been neither drunk nor disorderly, but in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The cell was no bigger than a small closet, maybe eight by eight feet, and metal-frame bunk beds that had been bolted into the floor sat against one of the stone walls. The mattresses were paper-thin and dingy, and it was best not to think about what was on them. There was a metal hole in the floor for a toilet and a barred window that overlooked the guarded courtyard below. The cell was shrouded in darkness, but every twenty-seven seconds the spotlight from one of the towers scanned across the window, giving light to the shadows of the cell.
Simon stayed quiet while Dante drew information from their third cellmate, who had been drunk and disorderly, but fortunately was also loose-lipped. And when the man had passed out and was snoring obnoxiously in a corner, Simon had looked over and said, “It’s good to know British Intelligence hasn’t changed.”
Dante had been speaking in flawless French to their other cellmate, but still Simon had known. And then he’d said something that piqued Dante’s curiosity.
“I was like you once.”
In his twenty-two-year-old arrogance, he’d responded, “I beg your pardon, but there’s no one else like me.”
Locke had smiled at him and moved into the spotlight. He wasn’t a big man—maybe five eight or five nine—and his hair was slicked back and tied at the nape of his neck. Even in the holding cell, his black slacks were precisely pressed and his expensive shirt only slightly mussed. There was a nonchalant cockiness about him that Dante could appreciate. He wasn’t screaming about injustice like many of the others down the long hallway. He was calm and cool, his hands in his pockets.
St. Gilles Prison was overcrowded, its nineteenth-century cells never meant to accommodate so many prisoners. The holding cells were in the east tower. MI6 had assured Dante he’d be released early the next morning, but that was still hours away.
“Are they planning your release for the morning, Mr. . . .”
“Malcolm. I’m sure someone will post bond for me in the morning,” Dante said vaguely. “And you? Will you be released in the morning? I didn’t catch your name.”
Simon smiled again and jangled some change in his pockets. Dante was surprised they hadn’t confiscated the man’s belongings when they’d brought him in.
“You can call me Locke,” he said.
“The jailers are getting lax,” Dante said, nodding to his pockets, making Simon grin again.
“Not so much. My pockets were empty when I came in. I tend to travel light.”
Dante wasn’t sure how Locke could have acquired a handful of change, but he was getting tired of the man’s vagueness.
“I told you I was like you once,” Simon said. “What if I told you there’s something more for you than interrogating two-bit terrorists in a moldy jail cell?”
“I’d say they were right to arrest you for drunkenness.”
He shrugged. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens. What if I told you I can get us both released right now? A man like you isn’t used to places like this. I can see the disgust in your eyes. They give you these jobs because you’re young and don’t know any better than to take them. But wait until the rats come. You’ll learn to speak up then.”
The man was beginning to get under his skin, but Dante had to admit he was curious. And the idea of spending even a few more hours inside the dark cell grated against his sense of propriety.
“And how would you get us released?” Dante asked.
Simon took a copper cent from his pocket and held it up to the passing light. “Watch and learn.”
He had watched. And he had learned. Simon had used that copper cent to remove the bars from the window, sharpening it into a screwdriver and undoing the bolts, catching each one in his hand so it didn’t fall to the courtyard below. He’d used a thread from the hem of his pants to separate the bars from the stone wall, all without making a single sound.
So Dante had followed him, knowing that he could at any moment be caught and shot, but there had been something compelling about Simon. He’d watched the other man scale the narrow ledges of the prison, counting the seconds before the spotlight would pass, and timing his movements precisely.
Dante had done the same thing, and he’d found the rush of living on the fringes felt better than it should. Then they were outside the prison, not a soul the wiser. Before they’d gone a block, Simon had slipped into the shadows as if he’d never been there at all.
The next day, Dante had thought he might have imagined the whole event—except that he’d had to report to his superiors about the information the terrorist had given him, and answered why he hadn’t been at the jail when someone had come to bail him out. He’d told them about the man, described his features and abilities. And though he hadn’t given them a name, they’d known the name of Simon Locke. And thanks to Dante, they now had a physical description of him.
He’d returned to London and his home, feeling like he’d somehow betrayed Simon, even though he’d spent hours studying his file and knowing he was a wanted man. When he walked into his bedroom, Simon had been sitting in the chair by the fireplace as if he belonged there. He’d known his identity had been compromised, but it didn’t seem to bother him. His confidence in his ability was much greater than his confidence that there was anyone out there good enough to catch him. But he’d admitted he was getting older, and that he was losing the zest he’d once had for the life.
He’d said once the desire started to wane, it was only a matter of time before a job ended in prison time instead of wealth and luxury. Simon hadn’t been the first Simon Locke. There’d been another before him, and another before him, who’d chosen and trained their successors with great care.
Simon had chosen Dante to be the next.
And Dante had accepted.
His work at MI6 had become secondary, but his training there had given him unimaginable advantages. He and Simon had more in common than he’d expected. But there were some jobs he wouldn’t take. Dante refused to steal for the sake of stealing. There had to be a reason, and someone had to benefit. Having a moral compass, as loose as it may be, had kept him grounded. It had been the only time he and Simon had ever argued, but Dante had drawn a hard line in the sand and he’d stuck with it.
For the last ten years, Dante had been Simon Locke. His mentor had taken him to dinner one night, and over dessert he’d casually passed him the torch, saying he was retiring and sailing to Antigua to live out his life and enjoy the spoils of his profession. He hadn’t seen Simon since, or gotten wind that he’d taken up the life again.
Dante had taken the passing of the name seriously, and he’d never had a moment of regret.
But Liv Rothschild had been a surprise. He’d seduced her for his own pleasure the moment he saw her. But then he’d found himself being seduced. Interpol had been looking for Simon Locke for years, and as irony would have it, she was put in charge of the investigation.
It had been pure self-preservation that had caused him to involve MI6 in the hunt for Simon Locke. She’d come too close too often to discovering his true identity, and joining his MI6 resources with hers guaranteed that he always knew the steps she was taking. She was good. But he was better.
He could’ve stopped, of course. But when it came down to it, Dante didn’t want to. The thrill was in his blood. But Liv had become his oxygen. He needed both of them to survive, and he had no reason to think he couldn’t have everything he wanted.
There was no reason to confess and ruin everything. Some confessions could never be forgiven. Liv was a straight arrow. She was adventurous and liked the thrill of the chase—that was in her blood, just as thieving was in his. But in the end, law and order would take precedence.
He’d always enjoyed the Marquis de Carmaux’s château. It had been built in the eighteenth century to honor the palace of Versailles, and everything as far as the eye could see was decorated in French Baroque. It was overdone and gaudy, but as Carmaux liked to say, it was jolly good fun and women loved it. Dante and Carmaux had been friends for years, and he could attest to both of those statements.
The entryway was done in pink marble and was completely open to the second floor. The domed ceiling was painted with cherubs and erotic scenes that most people never noticed, although the other nudes painted in niches along the walls were harder to miss. The double staircase was the showpiece, also done in pink marble and flanked by pink marble columns. Whenever he walked in, Dante always felt as if he’d been swallowed whole and was lounging about in someone’s stomach.
He made his way through the growing crowd and into the ballroom—white, thank God, with gold-leaf trim and ceilings again painted with subtly erotic love scenes. It smelled of perfume and excitement, and couples were already moving around the dance floor. The ballroom opened up on either side—on one side was the bar and a smattering of high tables so people could rest, and on the other were the doors that led into the courtyard.
What Dante didn’t see was the one woman he was looking for. Then he felt her behind him, and his mouth quirked in a smile as he turned.
“You’re late,” Liv said.
“I’m never late, darling,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it. And then he stopped and lingered when he got a good look at her.
Never had a woman had the ability to make his heart skip a beat. He’d always thought the phrase trite and impossible—foolish words of romance. But now he knew it to be true.
She was spectacular. She wore a long column of dark blue velvet—strapless and simple in its design—and the small train pooled at her feet like the darkest part of the ocean. Her white-blond hair was piled artfully on top of her head, and a sapphire the size of his thumb dangled just above her décolletage. His gaze lingered there, and all he could imagine was her wearing nothing but that necklace.
“If you keep looking at me like that, we’re likely to get in trouble,” she said, her lilting voice husky.
“Only if we do what I’m thinking about in front of all these people.” He released her hand and took two flutes of champagne from a passing tray, handing one to her.
“Are you sure he’ll be here tonight?” she asked, looking around the ballroom.
“I have a gut feeling. Carmaux has one of the premier art collections in the world, and after tonight, it’s going to be under museum security. If Locke is going to make his move, it’ll be tonight, when everything is out on display.”
“There are close to a thousand people here, and security is everywhere,” Liv said, bringing the flute to her lips to cover her words. “He’d be a fool to try to take one of these paintings. And Simon Locke is no fool.”
“Everyone has a weakness,” Dante told her. “And a challenge like this one is his. He’d go down in history as the greatest thief ever to live. To steal something in plain sight of all these people?”
The job for his client would be easy. It was the piece he’d chosen for his own commission that would be tricky. An American woman had hired him to take back a family heirloom. She was the great-great-granddaughter of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, from the line of one of his many illegitimate children, but he’d done a small portrait of his three-year-old granddaughter, his favorite, shortly before he died.
The painting was only four feet by six, and it portrayed his granddaughter, Anna—who’d been named after his mother—sitting in a field of white daisies in a white dress. On the back of the painting, Whistler had written her a note in pencil.
The great-great-granddaughter, who was also named Anna, had told Dante the painting had been very dear to her mother, but her stepfather had sold it for a fraction of what it was worth during hard times.
Dante wasn’t a fool. He’d known con artists his whole life. But he’d checked out the woman’s story through his sources at MI6 and determined that the painting did rightfully belong to her family. The Marquis de Carmaux had the painting sitting on a shelf in his library. Dante had passed by it dozens of times before and never given it a thought. Whistler wasn’t one he preferred for his personal collection.
He took Liv’s champagne and set both flutes on a nearby table, then led her to the dance floor so he had an excuse to take her into his arms beneath the glittering chandeliers. There was an orchestra at one end of the grand ballroom, and Carmaux’s art collection was arranged around the perimeter, special lighting emphasizing each piece. The highlight of the collection was a Picasso that was worth close to eighty million euros, but it was the Degas tucked in the corner that Dante had decided on for his commission.
“You know,” she said, “sometimes you sound as if you admire Locke.” Her mouth quirked in an amused smile as his arm came around her waist and she put her delicate hand in his.
He nodded and said, “You have to respect someone who is good at what they do. And he’s the best.” He ran his finger down the length of her spine and felt her shiver beneath his touch. “It doesn’t mean we won’t catch him. But I do respect him.”
She leaned back to look at him, her brow arched. “Don’t be jealous, darling. You’re very good at what you do. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll put you in handcuffs too.”
His dick spiked at the blatant invitation in her eyes, and he drew her closer. Her indrawn gasp told him she knew exactly the effect she was having on his body.
“Naughty girl,” he said. “Feel what you do to me?”
“Mmm,” she purred. “This could get awkward. But think how I feel. I’m not wearing any panties.”
His steps faltered and he stopped in the middle of the dance floor, hoping the black spots would clear from his vision before he made a fool of himself.
“I believe that’s something I should find out for myself.”
“We’re supposed to be working,” she reminded him. “Locke could be right under our noses.”
“The party has just started, darling,” he assured her, spinning her back into the waltz. “Locke seems like the kind of man who likes to make a statement. I noticed you brought in reinforcements. I saw Donner out of the corner of my eye, looking horrified at the goose liver paté.”
“If it doesn’t come from a cow, Donner isn’t interested,” she said, referring to one of the other Interpol agents and her closest friend. “I called him in for backup. I just have an uneasy feeling.”
“You wouldn’t be good at your job if your feelings were easy. I’ve come to learn Locke better over the last months. He’s going to want a splash. He’ll wait until the room is at its most crowded.”
“Care to make a wager on it?” she asked, her voice seductive and low. “I think he’ll wait until everyone starts to leave. Maybe even until tomorrow, just before the trucks arrive to collect the art.”
“And what do I get if I win?” he asked.
“You know that little red thing you like?”
“I like it better when it’s on the floor,” he told her. “I’ve got a better idea. If I win, we’ll both take vacation time. Two weeks. I have a villa in Tuscany. I’ll give the staff a holiday, so we never have to put clothes on.”
His Tuscan villa housed some of his personal collection, and part of him wanted her to walk by his most prized possessions, knowing that she wouldn’t recognize what was in her presence. Knowing he could get away with it. He understood that there was a kind of sickness to the need to have her so close, but still so far from knowing the real him. But he couldn’t help it.
“Sounds drafty,” she said, smiling.
“I have a rooftop garden,” he said. “I’ll make love to you there under the stars.”
“Romantic,” she said, leaning into him. And then she placed her lips next to his ear and whispered, “I’m not in the mood for romantic. I’ll go to Italy with you if you’ll figure out a way to fuck me now.”
His breath caught and his fingers dug into her back. She always knew how to catch him off guard. It was one of the things he loved about her.
He expertly waltzed her across the crowded dance floor until they’d reached the perimeter, and he discreetly checked his watch. There was still an hour and a half before Simon Locke was due to make his appearance. If he’d calculated precisely—and he always did—he could easily accommodate her wishes.
He leaned down and kissed the nape of her neck before whispering against her ear, “Here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it.” He used the popular line from Mission: Impossible just to hear her laugh.
“You’re going to retreat to the second floor where the ladies’ washroom is. To the right of the washroom is a small library. It’ll be unlocked—Carmaux likes to show off his first editions once he’s had a little too much to drink. There’s a fireplace along the south wall, with two hideous Rodin sculptures on either side.”
“Tell me how you really feel,” she said.
“Hush, love. Don’t interrupt or it’ll be ages before you get to come.” He enjoyed the quick flash of arrogance in her eyes. “Now, where was I?”
“You were pressing me closer so Lady Montreaux can’t see your hard-on. Daft old hag.”
He grinned. “That mouth is going to get you into so much trouble.”
“If you hurry, I’ll show you exactly what I can do with this mouth.”
“Right,” he said, remembering to breathe. “Pull the hideous Rodin on the left toward you, and the bookshelf to the right of the fireplace will open up.”
“You certainly know a lot about the Marquis de Carmaux’s personal residence,” she said curiously.
“I’ve played more hands of cards in that room than I can tell you.”
“Did you win?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, nipping just below her ear. “And I’ve been on quite a lucky streak.”
She smoothed her hand down his chest, but didn’t stop as she reached his belt, taking hold of the hard length straining against his trousers. “It looks like your lucky streak is about to continue.”
“Fifteen minutes,” he said, checking his watch. “Starting now.”
She straightened his bow tie and gave him a sassy wink. “You’d better take the back way. Lady Montreaux is bound to notice something amiss with your trousers. Knowing her, she’d think she was the reason, and then you’d really be in trouble.”
“Time just started,” he said, tapping his watch and grinning.
She laughed as she broke away from him, moving through the crowd and back toward the foyer and the stairs.
He watched her for a full minute before he moved from his spot. Then he checked his watch again. Every second was crucial during a job of this magnitude. Timing was everything.
He’d spent six months planning this heist, and he wouldn’t come away empty-handed, despite the challenges. But there was a small warning that kept flashing in the back of his mind. Liv had always been so close on his heels. And he’d literally brought her into the lion’s den for this one, almost as if he wanted to see how good she really was. Or prove to himself how good he really was.
He circled to the other side of the ballroom and then slipped off to a side hall that led to Carmaux’s private office. The narrow hallway was darkened to discourage guests from wandering, with a strategically positioned velvet rope to keep anyone from going too far. There was a secret passage in Carmaux’s office, similar to the one in the library.
The staff knew him here—the upstairs maid and one of the serving staff on an intimate level, though that threesome had been several years before during his wilder days—and while he normally wouldn’t care if they saw him, it was best he stay under the radar tonight.
Carmaux’s office was locked, as he expected, and it took him less than ten seconds to open the door with the pin he’d slipped from Liv’s hair. He slid inside and closed the door behind him. The lights were off, but the large picture window behind the desk admitted a flood of moonlight. There was a stillness about an empty room, a quietness that couldn’t be replicated. Dante paused, his senses on alert. Most people wouldn’t have realized and would’ve walked on by. But he wasn’t most people.
Instead, he strolled casually to the desk and leaned against it so the light was at his back, and crossed his ankles.
“And who might you be?” he asked.
She came out of the shadows like an apparition, but she was flesh and blood and bone. He could appreciate her beauty, much as he would a priceless piece of art, but there was no warmth to her. Her skin gleamed in the moonlight, the black dress she was barely wearing drawing attention to her assets. It plunged low in the front, almost to her navel, giving a glimpse of perfect breasts. And it slit high up the leg so he could see her hip as she walked toward him on metallic stilettos.
Once he got past the body, he moved on to the face. She was of Asian descent, mixed with Anglo features—her bones were delicate, with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes that were as black as the dress she wore. Her lips were full and slicked red, and her hair lush and curled over one shoulder, sleek and shiny as a sealskin.
“It’s not important to know who I am,” she said. “What’s important is that I know who you are.”
Dante smiled but felt a cold frisson of fear snake down his spine. “I’m an open book, darling.”
She smiled this time and came closer, passing inches in front of him as she went around the desk and took the seat at the helm. He turned so he faced her, but didn’t sit. He’d already lost ground with her. She propped her feet on the desk, showing off wicked heels and legs that seemed to go all the way to her ears.
“Let’s not play games,” she said. “I believe your time is running short.” She nodded at his watch, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of looking to check the time.
He didn’t know who the hell this woman was, but he was going to make it his life’s mission to find out.
“I’m growing tired of your theatrics,” he said, straightening his cuffs and preparing to leave. “As you’ve said, my time is short. I have much more pleasurable company waiting for me.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, smirking. “Miss Rothschild has had a mishap. I believe someone spilled some champagne on her lovely dress. She’ll be a few minutes late to your meeting.”
“You’re making a very dangerous enemy,” he told her, his eyes narrowing. He was armed, even though he didn’t need a weapon to kill. But leaving a body behind wasn’t part of Simon Locke’s MO, and a murder charge would certainly up the ante.
“I make a habit of that, Lord Malcolm,” she said. “Or do you prefer Agent Malcolm? Or better yet, should I call you Simon Locke?”
“Which government do you work for?”
“Have a seat,” she said. “And listen closely.”