A jewel thief has kidnapped Juliana Shales’s daughter, leaving Juliana no choice but to steal the Nadyenka Sapphire and trade the royal treasure for her daughter’s safe return. But she’ll have to steal it from Special Agent Lucas Vassilovich, the only man she’s ever loved.
Lucas is using the Sapphire to trap the jewel thief making a fool of him. He has no idea he’s about snare the woman who’s haunted his dreams for the past six years.
With his career on the line, Lucas is willing to do anything to protect Juliana, until he discovers the legacy she’s kept hidden from him.
The grainy picture could not hide its beauty. Featured in blazing color in the “Antiques & Collectibles” section of the Boston Sunday Globe, the most exquisite piece he’d ever seen seemed to come alive.
The sapphire was Kashmir. Rare. Expensive. Desirable. The stone weighed sixty-five carats on its own. Add to that diamonds, rubies, and pearls, and the brooch computed to a real treasure. The Nadyenka Sapphire, with its rare blue hue, had once belonged to the royal family of Dunavia, the story claimed. Kings died. Allegiances shifted. Borders wavered. But jewels, ah, they survived everything. And their beauty was a feast. One he for which hungered.
As he stared at the picture, a feeling strong and familiar traveled through him, filling him with warmth, sending his pulse to a trot, then a gallop. His mouth watered with want. He licked his lips and tasted desire. The newspaper page trembled in his hands, blurring the magnificent sapphire’s image. Carefully, he set down the section of paper. Reverently, he smoothed out the wrinkles. Tenderly, he cupped his fingers around the blue stone’s photograph.
“You belong to me.”
“Can you repeat that?” Juliana Shales asked, her voice squeaking with sudden dryness. She could barely hear herself over the frantic beating of her heart.
“You heard me the first time, Miss Shales. I have your daughter.”
“No, she’s at home.” Juliana shook her head. Briana was safe. She had to be safe. Albert and Ella, her live-in help, would protect her. They would die before they let anyone harm Briana.
“She’s wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt with red, orange and blue jungle frogs on the front, and a purple fleece jacket.”
“No, no, no.” Juliana moaned. A strange numbness overtook her. She couldn’t feel her feet. Her knees failed her and she sank onto a padded stool in the workshop of her jeweler’s boutique. Her hand, looking for support, knocked a tray of emeralds from the workbench to the floor, but all she could do was stare blankly as the jewels scattered around her. “Not Briana, anything but Briana.”
“You can have her back as soon as you procure the Nadyenka Sapphire for me.”
Desperately trying not to fall apart, she fisted her hand until her nails dug into her palms. “But I’m a gemologist, not a thief. I don’t know where the Nadyenka Sapphire—”
“I’ll provide you with the information you need. All I require from you is an expert’s eye.”
“I’ve done my homework. You’re an expert on precious gemstones. I see here that you testified last year in a case involving diamonds, and I’m most impressed by your testimony. From what I can gather, this stone is nearly perfect. Only one facet is slightly marred by a chip, and a prong hides the minuscule imperfection.”
Why was he going on and on about diamonds? Her ears hummed, her vision narrowed to a straw tunnel, and all her senses could focus only on one thing—Briana. “My daughter—”
“Is safe with me. We’re rather having a fun time of it. She’s quite good at this Skip-Bo game. She’s beaten me twice already.”
Briana was into cards these days. She could play hand after hand of Skip-Bo. Juliana often marveled at Ella’s patience with her driven daughter. And now this man, this monster, had her precious little girl in his claws. Her hand tightened around the receiver as if she could reach through the ether and snatch her baby back to safety.
“Where are you?” she pleaded, forcing herself not to scream.
“In a safe place.”
“I want to talk to her. I need to hear she’s all right.”
“She’s perfectly content. She’s quietly watching The Princess and the Frog. I understand it’s her favorite video. And we wouldn’t want to upset her now, would we?”
“I need to hear her voice. I need—”
“Calm down, Miss Shales. Here, we’ll compromise.”
Bells tolled slow and low somewhere in the background. Rustling sounds, footsteps, the voices of Tiana and Naveen singing issued from the clear connection. All the while Juliana sent a silent, desperate prayer. Please, please, please, let this be a terrible misunderstanding, let her be home, let her be safe.
Then came the kidnapper’s muffled voice. “Briana, what shall we have for dinner?”
In her mind, she could imagine Briana pondering the question, dark ponytail sinking down between her shoulders, her blue-gray eyes gazing straight up, her mouth crooked in concentration….
Juliana held her breath. No, no, no. He couldn’t have her. Briana wouldn’t have gone off with a stranger. She couldn’t lay sprawled in front of a TV, calmly watching a video if a stranger had snatched her. Ella and Albert would never have allowed anyone to take her. And if they’d somehow been incapacitated, then Briana would have panicked. Ella and Albert were like grandparents to her. She loved them.
An interminable five seconds passed before the familiar, assured voice answered. “Macaroni and cheese. But don’t try to sneak any green stuff in there. I don’t like green.”
Oh, God, he had her. He really had her. “My baby, my baby…” She rocked back and forth on her stool, torn between hanging onto this phone connection with Briana, and running to save her. But running where? Where was she?
“Miss Shales, I suggest you stop the hysterics and listen to me.”
She pressed her lips together to keep from bleating her distress. With her free hand, she reached for the pain knifing at her heart. “I want her back. Now. Please.”
“I understand your concern. Please be assured I will take good care of her. But I cannot return her without receiving the Nadyenka Sapphire.”
“She’s just five years old. A little girl. You can’t—”
“But I already have.”
Juliana closed her eyes. Yes, he already had spirited Briana away from what she’d thought was a safe haven to some unknown place, and if she ever wanted to see her again, she would have to cooperate.
She had no choice.
Briana was worth more to her than any gem, more than ethics, more than anything. Stay calm, stay calm. “How? When? Where?”
“I want you to go home now, Miss Shales. There you’ll find further instructions. I suggest you hurry. I don’t know how long the bonds will hold your hired help captive, and it would be a shame if the police were called. You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course. No police.”
“I don’t want to harm her. She’s really quite charming for a child. But I must have the stone, and I will do anything to ensure your cooperation in the matter. Am I making myself clear?”
“I’m leaving now. I’ll get it for you. Just don’t hurt her, please.”
The monster offered no answer and the line disconnected.
* * *
Juliana tore from her car to the precisely manicured Victorian duplex she shared with Albert and Ella Tilton. How could the house still look so calm and quiet with its butter-yellow paint and white trim? How could the tulip tree keep blooming? How could the wicker rocking chair on the porch still seem so inviting when her world had been turned upside down?
Those thirty-three minutes from her workshop in south Nashua had been pure torture. Questions had run round and round in her head. What had she done wrong? How had she exposed her daughter to such a violent act? Aubery, New Hampshire, was a safe little town. How could this happen when she’d left Briana in the care of not one, but two, people who treasured her little girl as much as she did?
Juliana’s first sight when she entered the kitchen was Ella trussed up to a chair. Tears streamed down the old woman’s face, soaking the kitchen towel stuffed into her mouth.
As soon as Juliana released the towel, Ella cried with renewed vigor. Her graying bun tilted to one side and bobbed in time to her sobs. “I’m sorry, Juliana, so sorry. I didn’t know. I never dreamed. He looked so polished, so presentable. Then after he grabbed me, he told me not to worry about Briana, that he was going to take care of her for a little while. And he just left me here all tied up. How could he do that? How could I not worry myself sick? Juliana—”
Juliana hugged Ella to stop from shaking her friend quiet. “It’s not your fault, Ella. You need to stop crying and tell me exactly what happened. Where’s Albert?”
The question hurled Ella into another keening fit. With her wrists and ankles freed, she tottered on her red sneakers toward the back door. “Oh, Albert, Albert. He was puttering in the flower beds in the backyard, planting some of those white pansies you like to go with the daffodils. Albert, Albert!”
Juliana scurried after Ella. They found poor Albert secured to the gardening shed. At sixty-six, stocky—all muscle and heart—and shorter than his wife by half an inch, he could still do the work of two men half his age. Even though time had whitened his hair, it still sprouted thick, but now stood on ends from tussling with the kidnapper.
They freed him. Albert rubbed at the knot on his head, then picked at bits of dried grass sticking to his sweater. “He caught me by surprise.”
“Who was it?”
“Never seen him. He was short, shaggy brown hair, buck teeth. Young. Maybe late twenties.”
“Why, no,” Ella chimed in, fussing over Albert. “He was in his forties, if he was a day. Bald as a cue ball and using a cane. He had a slight limp of his left leg.”
“Couldn’t be. Someone like that couldn’t have jumped me the way this guy did. Hit me from behind, he did. With my own shovel at that.”
“No, I’m sure, Albert. He was bald and had on one of those caps like golfers used to wear. A cream-colored cardigan and pressed gray slacks.”
“Jeans and sneakers and a Red Sox windbreaker.”
“Could there have been two of them?” Juliana interrupted.
Both Ella and Albert stopped their argument and stared at her.
“He was short,” Albert said.
“Yes, shorter than Albert,” Ella agreed.
“Took our Briana.” Albert drew in a long, ragged breath. “I couldn’t stop him, Juliana.”
“How could he take her without her fussing?” Juliana sank to the greening grass and picked up the small blue-and-yellow rubber ball Briana liked to bounce against the shed. The noise drove Albert crazy, but he never said a word. Juliana tightened her fist around the ball. Tears sprang to her eyes. “How could she willingly go with a stranger? I’ve told her. I’ve taught her.”
“Now Juliana, you can’t go blaming yourself.” Albert patted her shoulder stiffly. “You’ve done everything you can to keep her safe. If anyone’s to blame, it’s us.”
“He took her from school,” Ella said, sniffing. “Had to. He got here just as I was leaving to pick her up from her kindergarten class. She never saw us all tied up.”
Well, there was something to be thankful for. Juliana hated the thought of Briana seeing her caretakers in distress. She rocked back on her heels, stood up, and hugged herself against the empty coldness numbing her senses. Briana. Her baby. She was gone. Snatched. Kidnapped.
“Juliana?” Ella asked, forehead creased with worry.
Juliana launched the small ball against the shed. It hit the aluminum siding with a satisfying whop. “He said he left something for me.”
“Oh, yes.” Ella plodded back to the kitchen. Juliana followed, trailed by Albert. “A large envelope on the counter. Shouldn’t we call the police?”
“No police. I can’t risk it.”
“Juliana,” Albert said, “they always say no police, but we have to call them.”
“No!” Juliana whirled to face him. “I can’t risk it. She’s counting on me. I won’t let her down. I have to follow his instructions to the letter.”
“The police know how to handle these things. The FBI deals with kidnappings all the time. When it comes to situations like this, time is of the essence. You have to call.”
The thought of having police swarming through her house, of giving the kidnapper any excuse to harm her daughter sent chills up and down her arms. “No, no police. Definitely no FBI.”
“She’s right, Albert.” Ella slanted him an odd look. “We can’t take a chance with little Briana’s life. Whatever he wants, we have to do.”
As if realization suddenly hit him, Albert’s eyes grew wider, then his features became tauter and sterner. He gave a reluctant half nod.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Juliana tore open the envelope. Inside she found a typewritten note commanding her to wait for a phone call, a newspaper article, and a set of house plans.
More waiting. A silent wail howled through her.
This was pure torture. How long before she completely fell apart? The type swam in front of her eyes, so she tucked everything back into the envelope and wrapped her arms around her middle. She was not going to crack. To get her daughter back, she had to think, she had to stay in control.
She called the woman who ran the private kindergarten and asked her who had picked up Briana from school.
“Why it was Albert Tilton,” Marcia Price said. “I wondered why Ella hadn’t been the one, but he said she was dealing with a bit of stomach flu. It’s going around. I didn’t think anything of it. Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine,” Juliana lied. She couldn’t involve anyone in her problem. She couldn’t take any risk where Briana was concerned. “I just wanted to make sure she hadn’t walked home by herself.”
“You know I don’t allow that.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I think Briana’s got the same stomach flu as Ella. She probably won’t be in tomorrow.”
“Well, she looked perfectly healthy this afternoon. She skipped all the way to the library for story time and ate well.”
Marcia’s home stood seven houses down, and Briana could easily have walked the distance by herself, but Juliana had never allowed her. Not that her overprotectiveness had spared her daughter.
Now she had a third description of the kidnapper. This time, the spitting image of Albert. The stranger had probably picked the busiest time, and Marcia might not have gotten a close look, but how could he have fooled Briana? And Albert had been tied in the garden shed. He couldn’t have taken Briana himself or faked the knot on his head.
Juliana berated herself for thinking ill of Albert for even a second. He did so much for them. He loved Briana. He would never harm her in any way. Someone else had to have kidnapped her, but who?
Ella puttered around the kitchen, pouring coffee nobody drank, making sandwiches nobody ate. Albert sat stiff and somber across from Juliana. As Albert and Ella patiently went over their stories several times, Juliana listened intently, trying to make sense out of the impossible. The only conclusions she came to were that the kidnapper was short, and that he’d probably apprehended Briana from school. In Aubery. In the middle of the afternoon.
All this conflicting evidence gave her a splitting headache. And the wait and the not-knowing and the impotence of the whole situation weren’t helping. Who would make sure Briana ate her vegetables? Who would tuck her in? Who would do all the voices the way she liked for her bedtime story? Would she even have dinner? A bed? Books? He’d promised Juliana he’d take good care of Briana. But he’d also stolen her daughter.
I love you, Briana. I didn’t leave you. Would Briana know this? I’ll find you. I’ll bring you back home. Whatever it takes. I promise.
Carrying the portable house phone, her cell phone, and the envelope, Juliana trudged up the stairs to Briana’s room. She sat on the unmade bed, fingered the pink-and-white sheets, and glanced at the collection of stuffed animals—no dolls; Briana didn’t like dolls—all lined up in a row along the wall. Two were missing—Magic and Smoochy. Had she taken them to school? Were they giving her comfort?
She picked up Briana’s favorite purple nightgown and brought its sweatshirt material to her nose. It still smelled of Ivory soap and no-tears shampoo… and Briana’s own sweet scent.
Briana was gone. She was really gone.
“Please, please…” But Juliana didn’t know with whom she pleaded. “I just want her back.”
She wiped the fresh tears away with the back of her hand. You have to stay in control. Think. Do something.
For the second time, she opened the envelope.
The newspaper clipping featured a colored photograph of the Nadyenka Sapphire. She read the words, but couldn’t absorb any of the details. The plans showed a house located in Hopewell on the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border, complete with instructions on how to neutralize the alarm system.
Penned at the bottom of the blueprint, came the punch line that stole her breath away.
Owner: Lucas Vassilovich.
“Oh no, oh no.” Her fist clenched. The paper shook. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening. Not now.
Her heart skipped a beat, then pounded hard against her ribs. Memories assaulted her, whirling like a tornado, scattering bits and pieces of painful debris across her mind. She was twelve. She was twenty-two. She was losing her mother. She was losing Lucas.
…Sun spilled through the window, shining on the jewels spread on the black velvet cloth, making them appear like a pirate’s newfound booty. One by one, the man examined them through a loupe and pronounced a price. Then the pile was gone and her mother slipped the aquamarine off her finger.
“No, Mom, not your wedding ring.”
“You’re my most precious angel. Your welfare and that of your brothers’ means more to me than any jewel.”…
…Lucas, dark savage looks and heart-stopping smile, daring her with a tilt of his head across a crowded university library reading room. She resisted, but not for long. He swept her off her feet and showed her how much love she had to give….
…A handful of dirt on her mother’s grave. “Come back, Mom. Come back.”…
…Lucas lifting her high in the air, whirling her around, laughing after cracking his latest case. “This means a promotion for me, my perfect Jewel.” Lucas kissing her, holding her, loving her…
…The doctor’s office. Him telling her that her genes carried the same disease that had killed her father, erasing all hope for happiness…
…Setting Lucas free…
…Lucas leaving. Never looking back…
…Giving birth to Briana alone, without her mother, without her lover…
…The phone call. I have your daughter…
…I have your daughter…
…My precious angel…
…My perfect jewel…
The phone shrilled, knocking her out of the whirlwind of memories. She answered, pressing the record button.
“Did you find the packet?” the voice asked.
Juliana had no energy left. She lay limply on the bed. “Do you know what Lucas Vassilovich is?”
“Apart from a bastard, you mean. Yes, which only makes this sweeter.”
“He’s FBI. Police. If I get caught in his house—”
“Then you’ll have to make sure you aren’t. Now I’ve determined the best time to find the house empty is during the day. He leaves the house precisely at six-thirty every morning and usually returns between six and nine every evening. Here’s what you’ll do. Tomorrow morning…”
She listened to his instructions, swallowing hard as each step sounded more impossible than the next to carry out.
“Do you think you can do that?” he asked finally.
“I don’t have much of a choice.”
“No, no, I’m afraid you don’t.”
Her gaze caught the angel-shaped night light in the corner of the room. It had come on as daylight had died, throwing soft yellow light into the room. Her chest tightened. “Briana, she doesn’t like the dark. She needs a night light.”
“How could you?”
“Because, my dear, I have nothing but time.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
He laughed. “An honest one.”
The glow-in-the-dark stars came alive on Briana’s pale blue wall, and the prickle of tears burned her eyes. “Once I have the Nadyenka Sapphire, how do I get Briana back?”
“After you take the piece into your possession, I want you to promptly return home. I’ll call you with further instructions.”
“No, wait, that’s not going to work!” Juliana sat up, knocking the envelope and its contents to the rainbow-colored carpet.
“We’ll set up a meeting place for the exchange,” he reassured her. “It could all be over by tomorrow night.”
She hung on to the phone with both hands. “She needs help brushing her teeth. She tries to get away with just a swish. She likes at least two stories. She—”
“I’ll take good care of her.”
Juliana closed her eyes, squeezing out the brimming tears. Her lips trembled. She wanted to end the connection. She wanted to hang on to it. Briana, my baby, my baby…. “Let me talk to her,please.”
“That would only prove disruptive. I’ll be watching you, Miss Shales. One mistake and you’ll lose your precious Briana.”
She shot up, ready to fight, ready to tear this stranger into shreds if he dared hurt her child. “No—”
But it was too late, he’d hung up again. Juliana pressed the “end record” button, then curled into a fetal position on Briana’s bed. She wrapped the pink-and-white sheet around her shivering body, and through her free-flowing tears, sang a lullaby to the childless room.
She was alone. Only she could save Briana. And the irony of it all was that she’d have to betray the man she’d once loved to save his daughter.
* * *
Lucas watched the image move across the video receiver. Finally a bite. His palms turned sweaty, and he tightened his grip on the gadget.
He sat half a mile from the house in an unremarkable Bureau car—in case the thief recognized his own—parked in front of the local Dunkin’ Donuts for a ready supply of caffeine. Close enough to see the main road and easily follow the suspect once he left the house. Far enough not to appear suspicious to anyone driving along.
He riveted his attention on the fish-eyed view of the black-and-white figure creeping across his living room. Three months ago he’d placed the article on the Nadyenka Sapphire in the Boston Globe. With so many crimes and so few street agents to cover them all, he’d long since lost his surveillance team to more active cases.
The thief who’d been stealing precious jewels from museums and private collections all over the northeast was making a fool of him. He’d escaped him twice already. Now catching him was a matter of honor. To lure him out of his safe nest, Lucas had decided to use the Sapphire as bait. He’d known the thief wouldn’t be able to resist. He hadn’t expected him to be the woman he’d once loved.
“It doesn’t make sense.”
She wore baggy gray sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt a size too big, and a dark wig that didn’t fit and certainly didn’t become her, but he’d recognize her anywhere. Even after six years, he could still recall every line of her body, the silk of her long blond hair, the sensual rumble of her laughter, her taste, her scent. And those eyes, sometimes blue, sometimes gray, but always a reflection of her feelings. And those feelings had run deep.
She had loved him. He’d never understood why she’d pushed him away.
She bent over the prize, exposing her long neck. The creaminess of it sprang into his mind fresh and vivid. He caught himself licking his lips at the memory, growing heavy, needy.
Juliana Shales. The last person he’d expected to net in his trap.
Juliana. She still crept into his dreams when he least expected it. He’d wake up hard and hungry for her, hating his weakness for the woman who’d left him.
Jewel. When she broke off their relationship six years ago, it had battered his heart. But if she didn’t want him, he wouldn’t beg. Never had. Never would.
He wasn’t one to wallow in pain either. Instead he’d thrown himself into his work, matching wits with professional criminals and putting the bad guys behind bars. That was him, Prince Valiant. A joke to some of his fellow agents, but his record spoke for itself. He had a reputation for getting to the bottom of any art or jewel theft.
Except this one.
He’d never expected Juliana to fall into the category of shady character. She’d been sweet, gentle, passionate. And unfortunately for him, every woman he’d met since his short-lived relationship with Juliana failed to compare to the woman he’d lost.
Now there she was in the flesh, stealing his family’s legacy—the Nadyenka Sapphire his great-grandfather had died protecting. The jewel provided the only proof he had that his family had once sat on the royal throne of Dunavia—not that he expected to ever return to his kingdom. Dunavia no longer existed.
He deserved an explanation, but he didn’t necessarily want the Bureau to hear all he’d ask of her. Lucas flicked off the screen, and didn’t call for back up.
He rounded the back of the Dunkin’ Donuts, and loped to the woods surrounding his house. Before he’d gone far, he spotted a ruby-red Saturn parked along the logging road leading to private property farther inland from the main road. The crystal cut like a brilliant diamond hanging from the rearview mirror was a dead giveaway. Juliana’s car.
He tried the door. It opened. Her subtle scent of roses and jasmine surrounded him, reviving half-forgotten memories. He shook his head, scattering the pictures of the past, and climbed in.
Jewel, don’t you know that even in a small town like Hopewell you’re supposed to lock your doors. You never know who you might find waiting for you in the back seat of your car.