The Catspaw Collection

The Catspaw Collection

Anne Stuart

April 2015 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-997

It takes a thief to steal her heart.

 
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Catspaw 1

A reformed cat burglar. Can he be trusted?

Self-made socialite Francesca "Ferris” Byrd is too sharp to be fooled by even the smartest—and sexiest—man, even when he’s notorious ex-thief Patrick Blackheart, now one of San Francisco’s most eligible bachelors. Blackheart runs a respectable security business these days, and seems like the perfect man to protect the fabulous Von Emmerling emeralds. All he has to do is make certain the jewels get back to their owner after an elite charity ball.
And all Ferris has to do is make sure he isn’t tempted to keep them. The problem is, temptation is Blackheart’s specialty, and from the moment they meet it’s clear that he’d love to steal Ferris away from her stodgy life.
When the emeralds disappear, Blackheart is a top suspect. His reputation—and Ferris’s hard-won social standing—are at stake. What’s a woman to do when she’s got to kick off her high heels and follow her heart?

Catspaw 2

He won her love. But is it enough to keep him out of trouble? Being engaged to sexy-hot reformed cat burglar Patrick Blackheart, now a legit security expert, is thrilling, but a challenge. Ferris Byrd has loosened up, but she’s still a law-abiding socialite, and Blackheart promised to steer clear of his old habits. If he doesn’t, the wedding is off.
When a string of jewel heists in Europe matches Blackheart’s recent travel itinerary, Ferris fears he’s succumbed to his old ways. Why was he secretive about his whereabouts? She wants to believe that someone’s setting him up,

but . . .

An exhibit of Faberge eggs at the San Francisco Museum is the ultimate catnip for a jewel thief, and Ferris is in charge of them. She’ll be ready and waiting to unmask this cat burglar.

Anne Stuart is currently celebrating forty-five years as a published novelist. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the NYT Bestseller List, Publisher's Weekly, and USA Today. Anne Stuart currently lives in northern Vermont.

 


Reviews

"Blackheart is pure Stuart Bad Boy, so sexy he will knock your socks off." —The Best Reviews

"Stuart proves it takes a thief to steal your heart!" —The Best Reviews


Excerpt

 

Chapter One

FERRIS BYRD DIDN’T want to be in that plush, silent elevator carrying her inexorably toward the top floor of the San Francisco town house that held Blackheart, Inc. She’d argued—oh, so gently—manipulated, dragged her heels and flat-out refused. And still she was here.

The elevator doors whooshed open, exposing a small, charming hallway with white plastered walls, stripped oak woodwork and several doors. All belonging to Blackheart, Inc. and they were all closed. No one had seen her arrive—she could turn around and head back down to street level and tell Phillip Merriam and the Committee for Saving the Bay that someone else could deal with their chosen security firm. God knows why everyone had insisted on Blackheart, Inc.

No, Ferris knew very well why everyone had insisted on Blackheart. He had cachet, he had charm, he had a sly sort of fame that most people found irresistible and Ferris found offensive. She hated feeling judgmental, disap­proving,stiff and pompous. But she also hated what Blackheart repre­sented.

What she hated most of all, however, was cowardice, particularly her own. Phillip had talked her into it; the committee had insisted and here she was. She had no choice but to carry through.

"May I help you?” The office was a perfect example of San Francisco re­modeled, with antique oak furniture, masses of plants and the obligatory stained-glass window. The only thing that didn’t quite jibe was the reception­ist. She was young, in her mid-twenties at the latest, with short-cropped red hair, distrustful blue eyes, a pugnacious tilt to her chin and a small, compact body dressed in modified army-navy surplus. The polite greeting had been uttered in a surprisingly hostile tone, and the look she passed over Ferris left little doubt as to her opinion. As if to emphasize it, the receptionist, whose desk plate identified her as Kate Christiansen, sniffed disapprovingly.

Ferris had no doubt what the woman would see through her flinty blue eyes. She’d see a woman of elegance, her custom-made leather shoes worth more than Kate Christiansen’s entire wardrobe. Ferris’s soft wool suit was Liz Claiborne, and it draped artfully to conceal the rounder parts of her fig­ure. Her long legs were encased in real silk, her dark hair was clasped in a loose bun at the nape of her neck in a style that showed off her elegant bone structure. And the face itself wasn’t bad, Ferris thought dispassionately. She knew her green eyes were cool and assessing, her mouth, with its pale-peach lip gloss, had curved in a polite smile, and the discreet gold hoops in her ears added just enough color to her warm skin tones. She looked rich, understated and well cared for, from generations of such pampered elegance. And only she knew how hard it was to come by that look.

The thought pleased her into widening her smile. She could afford to be generous; she was so close to her goals. "I’m Ferris Byrd,” she said, her pleas­ant, well-modulated voice another triumph. Its slightly husky note was the only part she’d left of her original mid-western twang. Now she sounded bored, upper class and slightly naughty—and it was this voice, over the tele­phone, that had first charmed Phillip Merriam. "I have an appointment to see Mr. Blackheart.”

Kate Christiansen did not look pleased, and Ferris wondered whether it was jealousy that caused that glower, or something else. She was almost tempted to inform the pugnacious young lady that John Patrick Blackheart was the last person she wished to entice, but then she controlled herself. That had been her worst trial, overcoming the sudden, unbidden urges to do some­thing outrageous, but she had conquered the temptation, and now it was only a passing fantasy, quickly dismissed.

Kate Christiansen scowled. "He’ll be with you shortly. You can go on in.” With a jerk of her head she indicated the door on the left, then turned back to the sheaf of papers on the oak desk in front of her, effectively dismiss­ing the upstart.

Ferris allowed herself her first real smile of the morning as she settled in a low-slung chair by John Patrick Blackheart’s empty desk, her long, slender legs stretched out in front of her. Here she’d arrived, determined to disap­prove, and instead she’d been made to feel the outcast. It served her right, but it didn’t make her any more comfortable. Why hadn’t she been able to talk them into hiring someone less... less unorthodox?

There was nothing about the office to suggest the history of the man who ran it. The walls were the ubiquitous white plaster, the woodwork and orien­tal rugs as discreet and tastefully anonymous as Ferris herself and probably manufactured with as much care. The only sign of personality was in the choice of paintings. They were a strange mélange: a romantic water­color of the bay, a passionate oil of a storm at sea, a rigidly logical geometric painting that just might be a Mondrian. And most surprising of all, a Roy Lichtenstein silk-screen comic strip, with a cigarette-smoking, beret-clad lady holding a machine gun that went, according to the balloon, "crak-crak-crak.” Ferris looked at it for a moment, a reluctant smile curving her deliberately pale mouth. It was an odd, jarring combination of artistic styles that some­how worked.

"Ferris Byrd?” The smooth, friendly voice made her jump, and the body that went with it was just as much of a shock. He was an immensely tall, almost ridiculously handsome man, with a mop of blond curls atop his high forehead, steely blue eyes, a thousand teeth shining in a tanned face, and the broadest shoulders Ferris had ever seen. He held out a hand the size of a small turkey that easily enveloped hers. "I’m Trace Walker, Patrick’s associ­ate. How can I help you?”

Ferris immediately decided that the toothy smile was charming, the steely-blue gaze warm and friendly. It was only Blackheart himself that she distrusted. With luck maybe she could deal with this affable giant entirely. "I represent the Committee for Saving the Bay, and we’re in need of security consultants.”

He smiled that dazzling smile of his. "How convenient. We just happen to be security consultants. I talked with Senator Merriam yesterday—he said it has to do with the Puffin Ball?”

Ferris controlled the little spurt of irritation that sped through her. Phillip never did trust anyone else to get a job done. His hands-on approach aided him immeasurably in his political career, but it irritated the hell out of his administrative assistant and brand-new fiancée. She smiled again, a little more tightly. "Exactly. We’ve added a new touch this year. The Von Emmerling emeralds, to be exact. The raffle last year was such an astonishing suc­cess...”

"You’re raffling off the Von Emmerling emeralds?” Trace Walker ech­oed, aghast.

"No, of course not. They’re not ours to raffle—they’re only in San Francisco on loan. We’re raffling off the chance to wear them at the Puffin Ball. The first prize winner gets to wear them for two hours, second prize one hour, third prize half an hour.”

"Oh, Lord,” Walker groaned. "And you want us to protect them? The most famous emeralds in the world, and you’re going to be handing them out to just anybody to wear in a crowded ballroom?”

Ferris smiled. "Crazy, isn’t it? But people seem to be going wild about it. We’ve already sold a huge amount of tickets, and the committee’s had to order up another printing. It was an absolute brainstorm.”

"Yours?” he questioned glumly.

She shook her head. "I’m too conservative. I’d be just as afraid as you are that someone might decide to keep them. Originally we were thinking of auctioning off the wearing time, then decided against it. If someone knew ahead of time, they could have copies made, and it would be simple enough to make an exchange in the bathroom or something. We thought with a raffle it would be safer—the winners won’t know until they arrive at the ball.”

"You’re going to end up with a lot of women dressed for emeralds,” Walker pointed out. "You realize this is going to be practically impossible?”

"I imagine it will be difficult,” Ferris allowed. "But not impossible. At a thousand dollars per guest the list will naturally be limited, and we’ll have our own security there to make sure there are no gate-crashers. Your only worry will be the emeralds. As long as Carleton House is secure and someone’s on the scene, I expect it will be all right.”

"Carleton House!” Walker groaned. "On the point? That rambling old man­sion will take weeks to burglar-proof.”

Ferris smiled sweetly. "You have one week. The Puffin Ball is next Fri­day. I’m afraid we only just decided we’d need extra help for the jewels them­selves. Of course, if you don’t think you can handle it...” She was no longer certain she wanted him to give up. On the one hand, it would certainly make things easier for her, dealing with the firm that handled the regular security for Carleton House. On the other hand, Blackheart, Inc. had a certain appeal. Fortunately, it didn’t seem as if John Patrick Blackheart busied himself with the mundane details of the workaday world, and Trace Walker had a puppy-dog charm that even a securely engaged woman like Ferris could appreciate. It really might work out very well indeed.

"Don’t browbeat him, Miss Byrd.” Another voice entered the fray, and Ferris cursed the silent doorways and the even quieter footsteps of the man walking toward her. Obviously her hope had been in vain. The man walking toward her with that amused expression on his face could only be the hereto­fore absent John Patrick Blackheart. The most famous living cat burglar in the world.

BLACKHEART HAD been cursing quietly under his breath as he climbed the steep hill toward the town house that held his offices. Not that the hill was bad for the dull ache in his leg, but the dampness of the San Francisco weather certainly didn’t do it any good. The knee had tightened up again, and it took all his willpower not to favor it. It had been three years since he’d conquered the limp, three years since the last operation and the physical therapy and rigorous exercises. And now his right leg was as good as anybody else’s, could do what anyone else’s could do. He could dance, if it was a slow one and he had a nice rounded body to hold onto, he could walk briskly without any sign of strain, and he could even manage a sedate run along the beach south of the city when the mood hit him. The one thing he couldn’t do was scramble up the side of buildings and over rooftops, couldn’t cling like Spiderman to the back walls and sneak into fifteenth-floor windows. Not anymore.

He paused long enough to admire the discreet brass plate on the brick front of the town house, a wry smile lighting his face. It still amused him, two years later, that he’d be making his living from the same people who’d served him in the past. He’d taken his considerable experience and talent in the field of breaking and entering and used it to keep other people from following in his footsteps, and he did a damned fine job of it. Unlike the more traditional security firms in the city, he understood the mind of the thief, knew how his thought processes would work and how to circumvent him. If his job didn’t net any disappointed felons for the city jails, neither did it come up with any valuables missing. Blackheart was never completely sure if it was his ability or honor among thieves that kept his jobs successful. He imagined it was a little of both.

He was late for his appointment, and Kate would give him hell. He viewed that certainty with not the slightest chagrin. From the very beginning he had been deliberately lax about appointments. His change in lifestyle was too radical as it was—he couldn’t be expected to be punctual on top of every­thing else. Most of his wealthy clientele viewed it as a lovable foible, one they’d never accept in any other employee.

It was a woman, a friend of Senator Merriam’s, who was coming in. From his knowledge of Merriam, he knew the woman was bound to be good-looking, so there really was no need to hurry. Trace would be sniffing at her heels, all but drooling over her. He’d be just as happy if Blackheart didn’t show up too promptly.

They made good partners, Trace Walker with his handsome, open face and friendly manners, Blackheart so much the opposite. He had no illusions about the image he presented to the world. Just slightly devious, with secrets lurking in his shadowed face. Women seemed to find him irresistible, which was an added bonus, and the ones who didn’t lean toward him were just as entranced with Trace’s beefy good looks.

Trace would have never made it as a cat burglar, or in any form of break­ing and entering. For one thing, he was too big, for another, he was too good-hearted. He could never hear the tales of Blackheart’s illustrious career without worrying about the victims.

He’d been one of the victims himself, long ago. The one attempt Blackheart had made after his fall was Trace’s apartment, and it had been a fiasco all around. Blackheart had made it a practice only to prey on the extremely wealthy and well-insured. Trace put up a good front as an antique jewelry dealer, but his openness and good-heartedness had proved bad for business, so that by the time Blackheart fell clumsily in his bathroom window he was on the far edge of bankruptcy. There were no jewels in the large apartment with its rent overdue by three months; there were no expensive artifacts. There wasn’t even a camera or some portable stereo equipment, not that Blackheart would have stooped so low. There was only Trace Walker, glower­ing at him, more than happy to have someone on whom to take out his financial frustrations.

In retrospect Blackheart realized he hadn’t needed to be so rough with him. Sure, Trace outweighed him by forty pounds at least, towered over him by five inches, and had fists the size of hams. But he would never have gone far in such an uneven fight. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that the fight was uneven in Blackheart’s favor. Blackheart had some frustrations of his own—not the least being the sloppy attempt at burgling Trace Walker’s apartment and his nagging feeling of guilt—so in less than a minute Trace was flat on his back, breathing heavily, staring up at Blackheart’s fierce face with an expression of complete amazement on his open features. And then, slowly, that amazement had broadened into a grin, and he’d held out one of those hamlike hands to his would-be thief.

They’d been friends ever since. Trace seemed to think Blackheart needed looking after, and Blackheart felt the same about Trace. The two of them had an uneasy alliance that had served them well in the last two years, both profes­sionally and financially. Blackheart was more than willing to let all the pretty young debutantes of San Francisco end up in Trace’s office and eventu­ally Trace’s bed. He’d gotten tired of perfect bodies and empty souls.

"There you are,” Kate grumbled. "Trace beat you to it.”

"Any need for me to go in?” He gave the proffered mail a cursory glance before attempting a winning smile in Kate’s direction. As usual, it failed to get any response.

"Probably. Trace had that love struck look in his eye last time I saw him, and she’s more than the usual type.”

"How so?”

"I can’t really tell. Everything looks right—the Rolex watch, the suit, the discreet little gold touches. There’s something more there, but you know Trace. Everything at face value. And he sure seems to like her face.” If her voice was slightly disgruntled, Blackheart was kind enough not to notice it. He knew what was going on with Kate’s chronic bad temper, even if his obtuse associate didn't, and he knew there was no way he could interfere.

"Where are they?” he said, sighing.

"Your office. You can’t miss ’em. He’s the one looking like a lovesick calf, and she’s the one that stepped out of Vogue,Kate grumbled.

He moved with the silence that had gained him access to a hundred hotel rooms. Kate was, as usual, right. Ferris Byrd looked as if she stepped out of Vogue, and yet there was something that wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was in the glint of humor in those incredibly green eyes, maybe in the scarcely disci­plinedcurve of her pale mouth. Too pale, Blackheart thought critically. And the hair should be loose, flowing, a brown-black cloud around that arresting face of hers. She wasn’t really beautiful, at least not with a pink-and-white prettiness. She had something more than beauty, and he wondered whether a predictable man like Senator Phillip Merriam could appreciate that something. From the look of the diamond ring on her left hand, it appeared that he did.

But the very last thing he expected, watching her bait Trace with the light­est of touches, was the look of hostility in her green eyes when they turned to his. Miss Ferris Byrd did not like John Patrick Blackheart one tiny bit. And despite his general indifference to the opinions of his fellow man, Blackheart found himself intrigued.


 

 

Chapter Two

HE WASN’T WHAT she expected. Which was silly of her, since she’d seen photographs of him, heard enough to have a fairly accurate expectation of what he was like. But it was all shot to hell the first time she looked at him.

John Patrick Blackheart had to be somewhere in his mid to late thirties, and he’d lived every one of those years to the fullest. He was above average height, probably about five feet eleven, but next to Trace Walker he looked smaller. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him. His eyes were cool and brown and assessing, his dark brown hair a little too long, not styled, but rather like the hair of someone who hadn’t managed to get to a barber recently and didn’t give a damn. He had a light tan, and he was dressed all in black—black denims, a black turtleneck hugging his lean torso, black leather boots on his feet. He didn’t look like a world-famous criminal, but he didn’t look like an ordinary mortal, either. It might have been that genuinely amused curve to the sensual mouth, or the glint in the cool brown eyes. Or it might have been in the slightly tense way he held his lean, muscled body, poised for flight, poised for attack, poised for something. Ferris came to the unhappy conclusion that he was remarkable indeed, and she knew she was in trouble.

"Patrick!” Trace greeted him exuberantly, with only the faintest expres­sion of guilt marring his open features. "I didn’t know whether you would make it in this morning, so I thought I could get started... that is, Miss Byrd was here, and I...”

Ferris watched the smaller man take pity on his partner, smiling at him with a charm that was nothing short of dangerous. She decided then and there to be prepared if he chose to use it on her. "Don’t worry about it, Trace. You know I’m always late.” He turned to Ferris, and for the first time she felt the full force of those tawny brown eyes. They weren’t cool as she had thought, they were warm and subtly caressing, even as that mobile mouth of his curved in what was definitely a mocking smile. Ferris didn’t like to be mocked.

"I’m Ferris Byrd.” She rose, holding out her hand with determination, care­fully putting this man in his place. She’d had to deal with men trying every sort of intimidation; she’d faced sexual intimidation often enough to recognize it and fight it. She waited for him to take her hand, and when he did she realized her tactical error. His hand was rough with calluses, strong and warm, and it caught hers with just the right amount of pressure. Like an equal, none of that pumping, caressing stuff that always made her skin crawl. "I’ve already explained the problem to Trace, and I—”

"Senator Merriam spoke with me this morning,” Blackheart said gently. He had a soft, low voice that nevertheless commanded instant attention, and the quiet tones that should have been comforting were instead unnerving.

"Senator Merriam’s been busy,” she said, unable to control her start of irri­tation. "Then you know the problem?”

"The Puffin Ball, the Von Emmerling emeralds, and Carleton House? Yes, I know.”

"Do you think we can handle it, Patrick?” Trace asked eagerly, obviously more than happy to try.

"I’m wondering what Miss Byrd thinks,” Blackheart murmured.

He must have sensed her disapproval. She certainly hadn’t gone to any pains to hide it, but the thought of his reading her so accurately bothered her. "I think the Carleton security staff would be just as capable,” she said coolly, meeting his dare.

"Do you? I have the impression that Miss Byrd doesn’t approve of us, Trace.”

"Oh, surely not, Patrick,” Trace protested, looking like a very handsome, very wounded moose. "We’ve been getting along like a house afire.”

"I stand corrected. Miss Byrd doesn’t approve of me,” Blackheart said with a gentle smile. "Isn’t that so?”

Damn him, he was playing with her like a cat with a mouse, a fat, succu­lent little mouse. Well, she wasn’t going to cower away from him. "Quite true, Mr. Blackheart,” she said in dulcet tones.

"You’ve never heard the saying, ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’?”

"Certainly. The question is, what does the second thief do once he’s caught the first one?”

Blackheart smiled. "I expect he splits up the booty, like any sensible thief. Is that what you’re afraid of? That we’ll run off with the Von Emmerling emeralds ourselves?”

"Oh, no, Patrick!" Trace’s protest was explosive. "She wouldn’t think that we—”

"Yes, I would,” Ferris said sharply.

"Yes, she would, Trace,” Blackheart said, clearly amused. "So the ques­tion is, how do we get Miss Ferris Byrd to trust us enough to enable us to do our job properly?”

"Are you taking the job?” Ferris questioned. For a moment she’d thought she’d driven him off.

"Oh, most definitely. I never could resist a challenge,” Blackheart said, his laughing eyes running over her, and Ferris had the melancholy suspicion that he wasn’t talking about the Von Emmerling emeralds.

"That’s just as well,” she said briskly, squashing down the strong sense of unease that washed over her. "The Puffin Ball is only a week away, and we’d have a hard time making other arrangements at this late date.”

"In that case, why don’t I accompany Miss Byrd out to Carleton House to get a good look at the place?” Trace suggested eagerly. "I haven’t anything on for this morning, and I’d be more than happy to make the preliminary study.”

"Have you forgotten your report on the Winslow collection? Kate’s go­ing to have your head on a platter if you don’t let her close the files.”

"I’ll close my own files.” It was the closest Trace ever got to sulking, and he did a credible job of it, but Blackheart was unmoved.

"I can wait,” Ferris offered helpfully. "I have some errands to run in town. I can come back in a few hours when you’ve finished the report and take you out there, Trace.”

Trace’s face lit up for a moment, then darkened as he cast a beseeching glance at his partner.

Blackheart shook his head slowly. "You’re undermining discipline, Miss Byrd. Trace has got a full day’s work ahead of him. Besides, he usually concen­trates on the physical side of the job, not the planning stage. He’s got too much energy to be a mastermind.”

"I’ve got too little patience, you mean,” Trace said sheepishly. "He’s right, Ferris. Anything I did would just have to be done over by Patrick. You’re better off with him.”

Ferris controlled her disbelieving snort, turning her gaze to Blackheart’s. She expected smug triumph, not the very real humor that lingered there. "All right,” she said, knowing it was graceless and not really caring. "I don’t sup­pose you’d rather go there by yourself?”

"I don’t suppose. Senator Merriam assures me you know more than any­one about what’s going on with this benefit. He promised me you’d be invaluable.” Blackheart smiled sweetly, but Ferris wasn’t fooled.

"Let’s go then,” she said, caving in. "We may as well get it over with.”

"Charmingly put,” Blackheart replied, almost purring. "Let me give Kate a message and I’ll be ready. Soothe Miss Byrd’s ruffled feathers, Trace, and tell her I’m not half as bad as she thinks.”

"Patrick’s great,” Trace said earnestly, obeying unquestioningly as Blackheart’s lean figure disappeared out the door with the same uncanny silence with which he had entered. "Really, Ferris, you have nothing to worry about. I’d trust him with my life.”

"But would you trust him with your jewels?” she drawled.

"If he agreed to protect them, I would.”

"And if he didn’t agree?”

A frown creased Trace’s broad, handsome face. "I’m not sure,” he said hon­estly. "But I wouldn’t work with him if I didn’t trust him, and didn’t think other people could trust him too.”

"And I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

"I expect you’ll have to,” Blackheart had returned, damn him, still on si­lent cat’s feet. He had pulled an ancient Harris tweed jacket over the black turtleneck, and Ferris remembered belatedly that he was half British. He didn’t sound it—he sounded soft and menacing and American. But the coat looked as if it had belonged to some country squire. He probably stole it, she thought cynically.

"I expect I will.” She rose, ignoring the hand he held out to her. She couldn’t help but notice it was a well-shaped hand, with long, dexterous fingers, the better for plucking jewels out of someone’s bureau drawer; strong wrists, the better for hanging off buildings; and broad palms, the better for vaulting over rooftops. It also looked warm and strong and more than capable of caressing a bare shoulder. Damn, but the man was trouble. "Let’s go,” she said.

Blackheart only smiled.

"We’ll take my car.” It was a challenge, one Blackheart didn’t rise to.

"Certainly,” he murmured. "I walked to work anyway.”

Ferris gnashed her teeth as she yanked open the low-slung door of her vin­tage Mercedes 380SL. The navy blue had pleased her discerning eye, the classic lines enhanced her image—and if she had a hidden craving for a red Corvette, she suppressed it admirably. Corvettes were tacky.

"Nice car,” Blackheart said, gripping the seat as she tore into the traffic without looking.

"I worked hard to get it,” she snapped, tires screeching as she rounded a corner and started down one of San Francisco’s precipitous hills.

"And I wouldn’t know anything about hard work?” Blackheart ques­tioned softly.

"I didn’t say that.” She yanked the wheel sharply, the tires skidding slightly as she turned another corner and headed out toward the bay.

"The inference was clear. Tell me, do you always drive like this, or is it simply for my benefit?” He was completely unmoved, watching her with that damnable half-smile on his face.

She pressed harder on the accelerator. "A bit of both,” she said in a disinter­ested tone of voice. The Mercedes had far too much power, and they were speeding full tilt down California Street when his boot-clad foot slid over to her side of the car, hooked under her ankle and pulled it back off the accelerator.

She swerved in surprise, almost losing control of the car. Skidding to a stop, Ferris turned off the key with shaking hands. "What the hell were you trying to do?" She demanded in a rough voice. "You could have gotten us both killed.”

"Not if you hadn’t been driving so fast. I don’t like speeding in the mid­dle of the city. It attracts a great deal of unnecessary attention, and I have an aversion to the police.” It was all said in the most reasonable of voices, and her lip curled.

"I just bet you do,” Ferris snarled.

"We’re not going to get very far like this, Miss Byrd,” he said gently. "I think we should call an armed truce, at least for the next week. Senator Merriam is counting on you to give me every assistance.”

"He is, is he?”

Blackheart’s smile widened, opening up that dark, shuttered face. "So he told me this morning. You wouldn’t want to let him down, would you?”

"I have no intention of letting him down,” Ferris snapped.

"Then you’ll be giving me every assistance?”

"To the best of my ability.” It galled her to say it, but she had no choice.

"And I give you leave to disapprove of me all you want,” he added mag­nanimously, that wicked smile lighting his eyes. "As long as it doesn’t interfere with my work. I have my professional pride to consider.”

Nobly Ferris swallowed the retort that rose to her lips. That left her with nothing to say, and she stared straight forward at the busy street ahead of them.

She could feel Blackheart’s eyes on her, and they were far too astute. "A truce, Miss Byrd,” he said, holding out his hand. She had no choice but to take it, dropping it as quickly as she could.

"A truce, Mr. Blackheart. And you may as well call me Ferris, since we’ll be working together.”

"I might. But I don’t like it. Do you have any other names?”

Ferris controlled the unexpectedly nervous start. "Frances,” she said sul­lenly.

"I don’t like that, either. I’ll just have to make do with Miss Byrd until I find something that pleases me,” he murmured.

"Do you mind if I continue driving?” she asked pointedly, but Blackheart was unruffled.

"Please do.” Leaning back, he shut his eyes, but Ferris could see his hands clenching the leather seat as she pulled back into traffic. She drove sedately enough, and finally his eyes opened, those warm, all-knowing brown eyes that constantly unnerved her. "Are you going to tell me what you have to do with Senator Merriam? And the Committee for Saving the Bay?”

She wasn’t quite sure if it was a peace offering, but the subject was innocu­ous enough. "I’m Phillip Merriam’s administrative assistant. He’s trying to move up from the state senate to the U.S. Senate, and I was working on his election campaign when he decided to lend me to the committee to help them with the Puffin Ball.” She was quite pleased at her even tone of voice. Even the observant Blackheart couldn’t guess how disgruntled she was at being out of the action, shepherding a bunch of bored debutantes and society matrons. But she couldn’t allow herself to think like that. If all went well, if things went her way, she could be one of those society matrons, safe and secure in her giant house in the heart of San Francisco.

"Administrative assistant?” he echoed. "In my experience, administrative assistants are either people who know nothing and do nothing, or know everything and do everything. Which are you?”

Her foot began to press down harder on the accelerator again. "Guess.”

"Not so fast, Miss Byrd,” he said gently. "We aren’t in any hurry. We have plenty of time to get to know each other.”

She took the corner too fast, but then made a concerted effort to slow down. She wouldn’t put it past him to put that strong, rough hand on top of hers and pull her over. "That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said gloomily.

Blackheart laughed.

IN THE BRIGHT, glaring light of the small, secret workshop hidden behind the false wall of a closet in the basement of his jewelry shop on Geary Street, Hans Werdegast admired his handiwork. The Von Emmerling emeralds had to be his greatest creation, his masterpiece, his chef d’oeuvre, and there was no one to appreciate his genius, his craftsmanship.

Sighing, he shook his head, rubbing his lined forehead with a wrinkled linen handkerchief. That was the problem with his chosen avocation, he thought. No audience.

However, the money made up for it. He earned a comfortable amount from the small, elite jewelry store above him, supplementing it with a few custom-made pieces in the upstairs workshop where his assistants had free access, but the secrets of his hidden workshop did more than pay the bills, they bought him the luxuries and pleased his soul at the same time. He could no more give the workshop up than he could fly.

He was getting to be an old man, though. And he wouldn’t like to be caught. There was no way he would ever submit to being imprisoned again, behind bars and barbed wire, locked away. He glanced down at the faded, almost unreadable tattoo on his wrist. Months went by without thinking about it. Maybe he should stop being such a foolish old man and think about it more carefully.

The Von Emmerling emeralds were admittedly magnificent, the replicas so close to the real thing that anyone without a jeweler’s loupe would be fooled. Maybe it was a good place to stop. His customer was paying through the nose—the Von Emmerling emeralds were a fitting swan song.

Sighing, the old man dropped the glittering almost-jewels into a plastic bag, sealing it with a twist tie. It wounded him to treat his prize creations so shabbily. They deserved velvet as much as their authentic counterparts. But that would make the package too bulky, and he had to be ready to pass them to his customer later that evening with a minimum of fuss. A shoddy fate for a masterpiece.

He climbed down off the stool and shuffled back toward the hidden door­way to his storeroom closet. He’d miss his workshop, miss his secrets. But it was time to retire, and best to retire at the top of the game. For a mo­ment he wondered what had possessed his customer to tackle such a monu­mental job. But he knew. As enamored as he was of the phony emeralds, he knew the real ones would be far more enticing, particularly once you held them in your hands. No, he didn’t blame his customer. And he would make sure that he profited by them, just in case the elaborate scheme didn’t suc­ceed. Elaborate schemes had a high risk factor, and Hans Werdegast had almost been burned too many times.

Yes, he thought with a sigh, shutting the back wall of the closet behind him and shuffling into the deserted storeroom. It was time to retire. He’d spend his time in the upstairs workshop from now on, and look back with satisfaction on his memories. Particularly the Von Emmerling emeralds.


 

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