He’s a notorious billionaire. She’s a rookie insurance investigator. Each holds a clue to a priceless treasure. All that stands between them is a chase across the darker side of Europe to the final piece of the puzzle.
Kate Jackson had never been on the wrong side of the law…
Until the day she met Etienne Castel.
The billionaire whose face graces the cover of celebrity gossip magazines, while his nefarious activities fill the files of insurance investigations, is top of her list of suspects in the theft of a medieval painting.
But Etienne is just as keen to get his hands on the stolen artwork as Kate. And he’s not above using the sexy brunette to get his way. He already has the perfect lure—a ruby pendant, listed as stolen and rumoured to be connected to the painting.
Certain that she can’t trust a word the unscrupulous Etienne says, no matter how intoxicating his kisses are, Kate follows him back into a world from which she’d vowed never to return.
And into a deadly game of intrigue, deceit, and treachery.
Read the first chapter now…
IT WAS ALMOST too easy. Where was the fun in that? Etienne slid the zip open and eased his hand inside. His fingers touched the unmistakable cover of a passport. It was out of her bag and into his pocket before the car passed and continued down the road.
He watched her as she walked away from him. Jostled by tourists and shoppers, she crossed the road, oblivious to his actions. A chill wind blew across the back of his neck and he flicked up the collar of his coat. Bowing his head to hide his face, he followed her on the other side of the street.
The bustling sound of the bars and cafes that surrounded Maastricht’s main square lessened with each step. A group of American tourists exited a shop on his left, and he blended in behind them as they chatted excitedly. The streets were narrower here, making him more vulnerable to detection. Not that he had much to worry about if her surveillance skills were anything to go by.
She’d followed him most of yesterday, and not very subtly. Granted, she’d managed to dodge out of his way most of the time, but her porcelain white face framed by glossy dark hair made her too distinctive. She didn’t look like she had the stomach for crime, so he presumed she’d been hired by the insurance company.
Careful to keep his head averted, Etienne continued to follow her as she strode down the street, still unaware of his pickpocketing skills. From the direction she took, he guessed they were heading to the university library.
She came to an abrupt halt just past a clothes shop. The crowd of tourists carried on walking past, parting around her like she was one of the bollards that governed the traffic in the Dutch town.
Etienne stepped into a shop doorway. From this vantage point, he could see her image in the glass of the window, but the wall of the entrance hid him from sight.
She’d noticed her bag was open and was now frantically pulling it apart as she searched fruitlessly.
“Shit.” The softly uttered word drifted across the pavement.
Turning away from the street to keep his profile hidden, Etienne shook his head at her naivety as he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the passport. He ran a thumb over the cover. British. No surprise there. But the lack of stamps or visas as he flicked through the pages was curious. An insurance investigator that never went anywhere seemed unlikely. Maybe he was mistaken.
“Shit. Shit. Shit!”
He peered at the reflection in the window. Her hand flew to her forehead as she looked up and down the street before turning her gaze back to the bag hanging limply from her shoulder.
Etienne twisted his lips in a wry smile. Amateurs. They were the worst. He paused at the ID page. Kate Jackson. 28. Born in Edinburgh. No wonder she was dressed so lightly for the weather, unlike him, she was used to the cold.
He glanced up at the sky above him. The monotonous grey seemed to be darkening before his very eyes. It was a far cry from the blue skies and warm autumn rays of the Mediterranean sun he was used to at this time of year.
Committing the details to memory, he returned the passport to his pocket. She’d started to retrace her steps, scouring the pavement in front of her. He hung back. It would be too easy for her to notice him. If she did, then she was bound to realise who had her passport. The woman might be an enigma to him, but she clearly knew who he was, or at least thought she did.
How did she hope to recover a painting before it disappeared, probably forever, if she couldn’t keep tabs on a simple passport? Even the tourists knew to keep their valuables safe in the crowded streets around the Vrijthof.
Was her naivety just a ploy? Perhaps it was a double bluff. A way to get him to show his hand. He glanced over to the middle of the pedestrianised street where she was searching through her bag again and dismissed the thought. Non. That pale face with a desperate expression said something different.
But she must be aware of the character assassination the insurance companies held on him, or why keep him under surveillance? The last guy had been a lot harder to shake off. And a lot harder to spot in the first place. Etienne’s jaw clenched at the reminder of his own ineptitude that had nearly ruined everything he’d set up so far.
She, on the other hand, had been much easier to notice, and not just because of those kissable lips that were currently drawn down in a frown of dismay. There was something about her stature that drew the eye and made her stand out in a crowd. It wasn’t her height or her clothes that made him notice her, but something more subtle. He’d been aware of her yesterday, even before he caught a glimpse of her darting out of his view.
Then he’d seen her everywhere. So much so, that at first he thought it was some kind of test from Mercier. At the restaurant, the Galerie MOA, even following him back to his hotel. Not that it was a secret where he was staying. His family’s wealth meant that the gossip columnists kept a track on his movements, and he helped them do so. It provided him with more freedom to go where he pleased on days like these.
Hiding in plain sight was always the easiest disguise. Downplay his clothes and his mannerisms, and no one noticed him. He’d even walked right past her in the hotel lobby this morning, before returning yesterday’s compliment by following her back. The feel of her passport beneath his fingers as he slipped his hand into his pocket was proof enough as to who was better trained.
The shrill tinging of a bicycle bell made her swing around unexpectedly. Etienne turned and pretended to study the patisseries in a shop window. His neck itched as he felt her gaze upon him. He could well imagine her furrowed brow and eyes narrowing while she tried to ascertain if it was him or not. Needing to throw her off the scent, he stepped to the right and entered the shop, purchasing the first thing he saw. He kept his head towards the woman serving him, but his gaze rose to the mirror that hung above the racks of bread.
His target had moved on, continuing towards the junction they’d crossed a few minutes before, still tracking the pavement looking for her passport. Etienne paid and thanked the woman behind the counter before hurrying out of the shop. He wasn’t ready to give up following her just yet. Passing the bag of food to a homeless person in the doorway of an empty shop he continued briskly along the street.
By the time he’d caught up with her, she’d reached the junction where he’d taken her passport and was approaching some people sat outside a bar. He paused beside an illegally parked van, too far away to hear what was said, but the shaking of their heads gave away the gist of the conversation.
Her shoulders visibly dropped.
A twinge of guilt rested uncomfortably on his chest. He grimaced at his own sentimentality. Stolen art was a ruthless business with no time for weakness, and collateral damage was an occupational hazard. Her fate was inconsequential. He needed to give her the slip before he made his next move, and losing her passport would surely slow her down for a while.
Etienne glanced across at her again. Except she didn’t have that hardened demeanour of a career criminal, nor the jaded edge of an insurance investigator. If she hadn’t followed him yesterday, he’d have thought she was just another tourist in her black jeans and winter jacket.
She reached up with one hand and dug her fingers into her hair. Her frustration was palatable even from several meters away. At any other time, he’d have enjoyed playing Mademoiselle Jackson’s knight in shining armor. The fact that he’d been the one to distress her in the first place just added to the appeal, which showed what a twisted fuck he’d become.
It was a shame that this particular lady was looking to trap him or steal from him. Possibly both.
He turned to carry on back down the street. Now that he had what he wanted, there was no need to hang around. A movement in his peripheral vision made him hesitate. She’d given up on her search and had started to walk across the square towards the old part of town. Gut instinct said following her might prove useful. After all, where did one go when you’d just lost your passport? Common sense dictated your hotel, but she was walking in the wrong direction, which meant she was expected somewhere.
Pushing past some tourists, Etienne quickened his step to catch up. The heavy clouds made the late afternoon seem darker than normal, and he worried that he would lose her as she turned down one of the side streets at the other end of the square. The glow from the brightly lit shopfronts spilt out onto the pavement and illuminated her face briefly before she disappeared from sight.
Bordel, the woman walked fast. He sped up, and as the road opened wider in front of him, he saw her cross the junction heading towards the park. Where was she going now? Perhaps he’d misjudged her. Maybe she did court danger. During the day the park was safe enough, filled with joggers and mothers pushing prams, but now, in the twilight and the oncoming rain, it was asking for trouble.
It also left him with nowhere to hide.
FUCK. KATE STUCK her hands in her pockets to ward off the chill in the air. Her heart pounded as much with the fast walk as with the anger that coursed through her veins.
How was it possible? She hadn’t felt a thing. Her handbag had been closed. Of that she was certain. She’d been pickpocketed on the streets of Maastricht like a common tourist. God, if this got out, she’d never get promoted.
This was supposed to be her chance at field work. To show them what she was capable of before the replacement agent arrived, and she couldn’t even get that right. Her eyes stung with humiliation. Talk about self-sabotage. She didn’t need her colleagues to undermine her confidence. She was perfectly capable of doing it to herself.
How the hell was she going to prove she could retrieve a priceless painting while catching one of the world’s most elusive art thieves when she couldn’t even keep hold of her own possessions?
There was no doubt in her mind where it had happened. She’d had her hand on the bag as she stopped at the junction to wait for the car but had released it as the old lady beside her stumbled a little and she’d reached out to steady her.
Fool! It served her right for lying to Mr Barrett when he’d called yesterday morning to find out how Carl was doing. She could still hear his booming, patronising voice in her ear as she replayed the conversation in her mind.
“Jones will be repatriated back to England as soon as the hospital says he can be moved.”
“I saw him today,” she’d said. “He seems to be hoping that the break isn’t as bad as the doctors keep saying.”
“And he still has no idea how it happened?”
“No. He said the platform was crowded and someone pushed against him and he fell.”
“Hmm. Stay where you are and continue going through the translated poems to see if you can dredge up something new. Jones was convinced our copy was connected to the painting somehow. We’ll get a new field agent to you in the next couple of days.”
Her boss had been so condescending that she’d closed her eyes and silently counted to ten. Why did everyone think she was incapable of following up on a few leads herself?
She ignored the voice inside of her that reminded her she wasn’t even capable of retaining her freaking passport.
This time she’d been so sure she was going to prove them wrong.
“Do you know what leads Jones was pursuing?”
“I’m not sure. He was a little woozy when I spoke to him.” She’d crossed her fingers and thanked her lucky stars that her superior never liked to video conference. This was her chance to move out of research and into field work. No way was she about to volunteer the information that when Carl realised that Etienne Castel was in town he’d dropped everything to follow the Frenchman.
Bordering both Belgium and Germany, this area of the Netherlands was well known as a haven for moving stolen art through the continent. The arrival of the billionaire whose face graced the scandal sheets of celebrity magazines and the private files of insurance investigators couldn’t be ignored.
The wail of a police siren broke through her thoughts. Kate looked up to make sure she was still heading in the right direction. The headlights from a passing car lit up the road sign in front of her. It wasn’t too far now to the park.
Following Castel the day before had been easy. She’d simply waited in the hotel lobby for him to appear.
There’d been a sudden buzz about the hotel foyer that had alerted her to his presence. The photo in Carl’s dossier hadn’t done the charismatic Frenchman justice. In real life, he was taller and more imposing. The way his suit jacket hugged his broad shoulders spoke of a toned body underneath. Her gaze had been transfixed as he made his way with a quiet air of confidence out of the hotel and into a waiting car, leaving her scrambling into a taxi trying to second guess where he was going.
Fortunately he didn’t travel far and she spied him exiting the taxi at Galerie MOA, his expression impassive until a beautiful blond approached him. Then he’d been all smiles as he greeted her with the traditional three kisses on the cheek that the Dutch favoured before allowing himself to be ushered inside the building.
Ire had sent Kate’s temperature up a notch as she pictured him perusing the gallery, probably deciding which painting to steal next.
At first glance Castel appeared to be like any other billionaire playboy whose wealth opened doors. The blond clinging onto more than his every word as they walked into the museum gave credence to the assumption. But rumour had it he procured art by any means.
She’d gone to his hotel again this morning, but when it got to midday and reception verified he wasn’t in his room, she realised she’d just lucked out the day before. Cutting her losses, she’d returned to her own hotel to see if there was anything more in Carl’s notes, before heading out again.
The park came into sight just across the road. She eyed the entrance through the darkening gloom and wondered at her sanity.
Carl had been following several lines of enquiry since the painting was stolen just over a week ago. One of them involved a dealer who had refused to meet her at first when she called him this morning. Eventually he relented and asked to meet her here.
She’d envisioned something different when she’d arranged the meeting. Certainly more daylight and definitely more people.
Dusk was arriving fast, giving an eerie feel to the tree lined entrance. Pushing aside the trepidation that filled her heart, Kate checked that her bag was still closed as she looped the strap over her head. A bit late now to be overcautious, but her options were running out. The new guy would arrive in less than forty-eight hours, and she needed something to put herself in a stronger position to stay in the field.
Fallen leaves made it difficult to distinguish the path from the grass in the oncoming darkness. Her boots sank down into the mud a couple of times before she found firmer footing in the centre of the path. The solid ground beneath her feet built up her confidence. She could do this. It was just a simple meeting. She’d faced tougher criminals training as a barrister in London. If she wanted to get ahead, she was going to have to get used to meeting in less than desirable places.
As she rounded the corner, the bench where the dealer had agreed to meet her came into view. Her heart dropped when she realised it was empty. Glancing at her watch, she sighed in relief. She was early. He might be late. She just needed to be patient.
A whirling sound behind her made her twist around. Half a dozen teenagers on bikes were bearing down on her. Before she could step back, they came to an abrupt halt surrounding her. A chill ran down her back. She turned to face forwards and tried to take a step in that direction, but the way was blocked by the front wheels of two bikes.
They were just kids. She could brave this out. Keep calm. Clear voice. Be commanding.
“Would you mind moving out of my way?” Everyone in the Netherlands seemed to speak English. She hoped these youths did, too.
“Give us your fucking bag.”
Bilingual thieves, her lucky day. “I’ve already been robbed once today. There’s nothing in there. Why don’t you go find someone else and take their money?”
The older one on her right laughed scornfully. “Who said anything about money? We want the fucking documents.”
Seriously? Could her day get any worse? And wasn’t it a coincidence that the dealer she was supposed to meet was also interested in the poems?
“Don’t mess with us lady,” the burgeoning thug to her left said. “Our boss, he gets very angry when he doesn’t get his way.”
“Well, go tell your boss not to send boys to do men’s work. I don’t have them on me. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t hand them over.”
The skinny one on her right nodded up towards the still empty bench. “I thought you were meeting someone?”
And she thought no one else knew about the meeting, let alone the poems, so how come she had a greeting party? She tried not to think that Carl’s accident might not have been one.
“Yeah, well, he’s a no show now with you here, isn’t he?”
“So you do have them with you.”
“No, pipsqueak.” She didn’t know if the insult would even register in a different language, but she felt better for standing up for herself, even if the putdown was lame. “How naive do you think I am, turning up to meet a stranger with what he wants? Don’t you watch movies?”
The teenager reached into his pocket. “Don’t you?”
The sound of metal swishing against metal filled her with dread.
“Last. Fucking. Chance.” A blade glinted in his hand.
Perhaps he did understand the insult.
He raised his hand towards her, and instinctively Kate lifted her arm to ward him off, but he was too quick. He slit the strap of her bag and pulled. She grabbed the bag and pulled back. No way was she going to lose everything to some lout.
“Hey!” A shout from behind halted their struggle, and the little shit took advantage of her momentary distraction and yanked the bag out of her hands. But in his rush to cycle off, his spokes became entangled with his cohort, and Kate seized the chance to clutch her bag back. As they tugged at either end of the strap, the bag fell open and spewed its contents across the grass.
Someone shouted again, and at the sound of heavy footsteps, her assailants cycled off into the gloom, having seen for themselves that she wasn’t lying about having nothing of value in her bag. Her breath came in rapid bursts. The shock and the rush of adrenalin from the encounter hit her stomach in a wave of nausea.
The hand on her shoulder was almost her undoing.