Michele Albert @ inkalicious.com

Chapter One

I have a job that requires your singular talents.

Had his boss meant the acting talent, the B & E talent, or the running-a-con-on-a-con-man talent? Or all three?

Frowning slightly, Will Tiernay punched in his security code, then pressed his thumb against the digital reader. A buzz and a loud click signaled that the door was unlocked, and he entered the inner sanctum of Sheridan Expeditions.

The third-floor suite offered a perfect view of Puget Sound, and the earthy colors and log cabin theme met all expectations of what the executive offices of a thriving adventure travel agency should look like -- although Sheridan Expeditions was also much more.

The woman behind the large, curved reception desk stood as Will approached. Her sleeveless turquoise shirt and tan pants emphasized both the strong, lean lines of her muscles and smooth black skin. Usually the desk was staffed by Barbie-doll-blond, blue-eyed Ellie -- where did Sheridan find all these hot, kick-ass women?

"Hey," he said, smiling as a subtle perfume scent tickled his senses. "Will Tiernay here to see Ben."

The woman arched a brow over the top of her narrow oval glasses, which made her chilly reserve all the more sexy and classy. "Mr. Sheridan is in a meeting in the conference room. He's expecting you -- and has been for several hours," she added politely if pointedly. "So you can walk right in."

Yeah, he was late, but so what? Given the difficulty of booking a flight to Seattle out of Rio de Janeiro with barely any lead time, he could've been a hell of a lot later. He gave her an equally polite nod, then headed down the hall to the conference room and pushed open the door.

And immediately ducked as the thick sole of an athletic shoe rushed toward his face.

Twisting, he raised his forearm to block another kick to his head, this one launched by a bare foot with pink toenails.

"Goddammit," Will snapped. "I got here as soon as I could!"

Being ambushed by the company CEO and his executive secretary was not an auspicious start to a new assignment.

Ben Sheridan, in sweatpants and a Seattle University T-shirt, loomed above him. Faint lines crinkled at the corners of his dark eyes and around his mouth as he smiled. "Just testing your reflexes. Making sure you haven't gone soft after all those surveillance jobs lately."

"No need to worry about that," Ellie said. In her gray leggings, baby pink tee, and ponytail, she looked like any young suburbanite socializing at the local fitness club. "That arm felt rock solid to me."

"I hate to think of what you two throw at the tough guys on the payroll."

"Oh, you're tough enough." She ran her hand along the muscles of his upper arm and made an approving sound.

"Ellie," Ben said, his tone amused. "You're petting him again."

"Because he's such a very pettable man." With a small smile, she pulled at Will's black suit coat to reveal the label. "Tsk-tsk. Brawling in Hugo Boss. Shame on you."

"I never brawl," Will said haughtily.

"Says the wolf in sheep's clothing." Ellie straightened his lapels, realigned the red silk tie, and gave his shoulder a light pat. "I don't know many men who look this good in a suit. It must be that tall, dark, and handsome thing. I bet you leave a trail of drooling women in your wake."

"Not that I've ever noticed -- which is a damn shame." He couldn't help being charmed by Ellie's girlie cuteness. Flirting came as naturally to her as typing a hundred words a minute and breaking noses.

Smiling, he turned to Ben. "The receptionist didn't look too impressed when she informed me that I'd better haul my tardy ass inside. Is she new? And what's her name?"

"Her name is Shaunda." Ben took the towel Ellie held out and rubbed it vigorously over his short, dark hair. "She fills in for Ellie, and no, I won't give you her telephone number."

Annoyed at having his ulterior motives nailed so fast, Will said, "I wasn't going to ask for her number."

"Of course you weren't," Ben agreed, exchanging looks with Ellie.

Smug bastard. "Since when is fighting with your secretary a meeting?"

"My company, my policies. She helps me with my physical training three times a week, so I don't get soft."

What a hardship, being rich and top dog and forcing oneself to spar with a beautiful blonde three times a week. "Who wins?"

"She does."

"Only because you're not really fighting," Ellie retorted. "It's because I'm a girl. He doesn't take me seriously."

"If I didn't take you seriously, you wouldn't be my bodyguard."

Ellie sighed. "I should turn Shaunda loose on you; it's exactly what you deserve. But if she kills you, I'm out of a cushy little job."

"Speaking of cushy little jobs, how's the Art Guy?" Will asked.

Her smugly secretive female smile said everything and nothing. "The Art Guy is very happy. I make sure he stays that way."

"Good to hear," Ben said dryly. "Without him, all you ex-cop and ex-military Neanderthals would never learn the difference between art and porn."

The Art Guy was a professor who provided crash courses on art to Avalon rookies, often on short notice and at odd hours of the night. The Art Guy also provided amazingly detailed knowledge on how to spot and produce forgeries. Will had never asked if that knowledge came from research or from something more hands-on.

He'd easily passed the art briefings, since the love of his life in college had not only dragged him to countless museums and galleries but also talked about art a lot. It was surprising how much had stuck after all these years; even more surprising was that he'd found a use for it.

Wouldn't she be surprised if she could see him now.

"If keeping him happy is that important, I think I deserve a raise. Don't you, Will?"

Ellie's question broke across the less-than-happy memory, and Will glanced up to see Ben watching him with an enigmatic expression.

Caught off guard, Will took a moment to respond. "I agree. Better pay up, boss."

"I don't pay Ellie to keep the Art Guy happy. I pay her to guard my body."

"It's your money. But for the record, keeping Nolan happy takes a lot more effort than guarding you." She picked up her towel and left, the door closing behind her with a quiet click.

Will slipped his hands in his pockets, jingling keys and spare change. "I think Ellie got in the last word."

"She generally does." Ben cleared his throat. "You're late."

"I was on the other side of the equator when you emailed me. What's up?"

"I'm going to need my man of the hundred faces, so brush up on your acting skills." Ben flashed a smile. "I'm sending you to Boston."

The tension in that quick smile, which had been more like bared teeth, blunted Will's rush of anticipation. "Okay. Give me the details."

"A call came in this week from a contact at the Met, asking for our help." Ben pulled out a chair at the conference table for Will, then one for himself on the opposite side. "You've heard of Mal Toller?"

"Old money, lords it over a Boston law firm, and is currently playing publisher with some men's magazine he bought from an Italian corporation."

"That's him."

Will leaned back, his brows pulling together in thought. "He has a few nice paintings...plus a sweet little Byzantine collection, if I'm remembering right. The Eudoxia Reliquary alone is worth a small fortune."

"It's said to hold a bloody thorn from Christ's crown of thorns, which boosts its value even more -- and then there's the curse. Some people will pay big money for that kind of thing."

Because some people are stupid. "Was the reliquary stolen?"

Ben shook his head. "Not yet, but here's the deal: Toller's been short on cash and decided to sell the collection to the Met. Naturally the Met was eager to acquire it. As part of the deal, Toller wanted top-of-the line replicas made for display at his estate."

Nothing unusual in that. Will sat forward, resting his elbows on the table. "Where's the problem?"

"The problem is that Toller didn't go through the Met for the reproductions. He contracted with a private firm in Boston that's been in business for only a few years. Toller claims he's friends with the owner and wants to give his company a boost."

Will reached inside his suit coat and pulled out a notepad and pen. "I see where this is going."

"The company is Haddington Reproductions," Ben continued. "Hugh Haddington used to work for the Facsimile Service at the British Museum. He left four years ago to start his own business in the U.S., taking a couple of co-workers with him. The business is doing well, but not as well as Haddington would like. Getting the contract for the Eudoxia collection is his big break."

"Who am I hunting? Toller, Haddington, or both?"

"Haddington, since Toller is in Europe on a business trip. If it turns out Toller is involved, all you can do is to turn the evidence over to local law enforcement. Haddington's two assistants aren't in the clear, either. The sudden urgency is because one of our guys in Rome is hearing rumors of a lot of Byzantine art about to hit the market, and one rumor specifically mentioned the Eudoxia Reliquary."

Meaning the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York's most prestigious art museum, was about to get a bogus collection for the big bucks they'd paid to Toller, while the real pieces would be sold for even more money on the black market.

"Why me instead of the local cops?"

"We need someone experienced in white-collar crime who can improvise his cover as needed, and that would be you."

That "we" meant Ben was acting on orders from the top, but Will no longer wasted time speculating on the identity of the mysterious individual who gave Ben Sheridan his orders and funded his small, private army of mercenaries. Mercenaries with an eye for art -- and if he weren't living the reality, Will would've laughed away such a crazy notion.

"I'll need all the information you've got on Toller, Haddington, and the Eudoxia collection."

"We're still working on that," Ben answered. "We've got Toller and the collection covered, but we don't have much on Haddington yet, and only the names of his two employees: Vanessa Sharpton and Mia Dolan."

Will looked up sharply. Mia wasn't a common name -- but it wasn't really rare, either.

Ben drummed the tips of his fingers on the table, whether from impatience, nervous energy, or something else, Will couldn't say.

"No spouses or significant others listed yet, but I'd expect that to change. They're all British citizens, so call our friends at the Yard if necessary."

Will nodded. "Got it."

"Ellie will hand over what we have right now, and forward everything else by courier as soon as possible. She's also booked a hotel room and put together your cover. You'll be posing as a free-lance journalist. Details are in the file."

"Alias?"

"You won't need an alias."

"Why not?"

Ben stared at him, unblinking. "Because you won't. Like I said, details are in the file. Pick up everything you'll need from Ellie, then Shaunda will drive you to the airport."

He should be used to traveling long hours for five minutes worth of information; it was the way Sheridan always operated. Once upon a time, people delivered their important news by Federal Express, then computers came along and they used Outlook Express. But with the internet a quagmire of security holes, Ben preferred to deliver actual information face-to-face -- hence the enigmatic email to haul his ass to home base.

Will glanced at his watch. It would be at least a six-hour flight to Boston, and he'd already spent tedious hours in transit. "Do I get a company jet?"

"Yes, since I needed you there yesterday. Haddington will be expecting you around seven tonight. You've already sent him an email," Ben explained at Will's questioning look.

"How efficient of me." Will stood. "I'll talk to Ellie, then head out."

"Hold on. I'm not done yet." Ben frowned. "We have reason to believe von Lahr is involved."

Will sat back down.

Rainert von Lahr, the Bundeswehr-trained sniper who'd walked away from a promising military career and transformed himself into one of the most-wanted art thieves worldwide. Bringing down von Lahr had been Avalon's Holy Grail for fifteen years; there wasn't a single person at Avalon who didn't want to be the first to nail the sonofabitch.

This was the reason Will was going in before the local cops.

"You know how good von Lahr is at moving small pieces. If he gets his hands on that reliquary, we may never get it back."

"No wonder my surveillance in Rio was a bust," Will said. "The bastard had already left."

"Did you find out where he was staying there?"

Recalling hours wasted in stuffy vans and dark hotel rooms -- nowhere near the fabled beaches and kilometers of tanned female flesh -- Will grimaced. "The intel was legit and he was using the condo, but he was long gone by the time I got there."

"And the woman?"

Wherever von Lahr went, there was always a woman about to take a big fall just as he disappeared into thin air.

"Nobody's seen her or heard from her in the past six weeks."

"That doesn't sound good."

Will shrugged. "The lady was a player. If she turns up dead, the list of suspects will include more names than von Lahr's. Our few other leads didn't tell us anything we didn't already know."

"It was always a long shot." Ben squeezed the bridge of his nose and let out a long sigh, equal parts frustration and weariness. "But at least we know he's back in the game, after lying low for the last couple years."

Will had heard about the near-miss with von Lahr in Los Angeles back in November. "Is it true Laughton quit?"

"It was something he needed to do. I respect that." Ben shifted, resting his elbows on the chair's back. "And now that we know for sure von Lahr's set up business in Brazil as well as Venezuela, I'll work on finding someone else to keep an eye on things down there."

"Okaaay," Will said after a moment. "So I'm not going back to surveillance once I'm done in Boston?"

"For now, no. There's something else I'd like you to work on between assignments. It's not a priority, but I have a personal interest in seeing it resolved."

Personal? Intrigued, Will leaned forward. "What kind of project?"

A stack of files sat at the side of the conference table, and Ben reached over and removed the top one. He slid the folder, with a soft swishing sound, across the smooth surface toward Will. "Take a look."

It contained copies of old typed and handwritten reports in Italian, although a few pages were in English and German. Will was fluent in Spanish, and his French and Italian reading skills were passable, but he'd have to break out a dictionary for the German.

A faded photograph sat on top of the reports, showing a young woman with long black hair. She had a pretty smile, but what caught his attention was how she looked right at the camera, as if she could truly see him. The wistful dreaminess in those dark eyes stirred old memories.

Shaking off the feeling, Will glanced through the papers for the girl's name. He found it, along with a death certificate dated July 1943. She'd been only twenty years old.

"I'm getting the feeling Maria Balestrini didn't die of natural causes."

"Murdered. The case was never solved."

A hell of a cold case file -- over half a century old, from a country half the world away. But how could he turn down a challenge like that? "Sure. I'll look into it for you."

Ben raised a brow. "It always surprises me, how you never ask the questions everyone else asks."

"If I did, would you tell me the truth?" Will asked mildly.

"Doubtful."

"Then asking questions would just be a waste of my time."

The flat, veiled expression on Ben's face was one Will recognized from his cop days: a warning flash of hard-edged power, a thrum of controlled violence, which came of a life spent looking too deeply into the darkness, of doing what should not have to be done.

The look was gone as suddenly as it had come. "Probably," Ben agreed in an equally genial tone.

Will closed the file, shutting away the girl's disturbing gaze. "Okay, but if there's anything else I should know, now's the time to spill."

"Not much to tell. There's evidence that she knew a man who disappeared in 1939, and there was a connection between that disappearance and another one nearly fifty years later. My first assignment for Avalon was to investigate what happened in both cases; we hoped solving the older disappearance would solve the newer one. Instead I just hit one dead end after another. I don't like failure. It eats at my peace of mind." Ben spread his hands in a there-you-have-it-gesture. "Maybe a fresh look will uncover something I missed."

"Do I get the names of the people who disappeared?"

Ben shook his head. "Not until you need them."

"All right." Will mulled that over for a moment. "And how will I know when I need them?"

"I'll know."

The speaker phone buzzed, and Ellie's voice rang out: "Ben, there's a courier here with an urgent delivery. Do you want me to send him in or have him wait?"

"Have him wait. I'm almost done here." Once she'd disconnected, Ben turned back toward Will. "When I said fresh, I meant fresh. No preconceived expectations, like I had then. And keep in mind that her death might not have any relevance," Ben cautioned. "It's another long shot. They're always long shots in this business."

"I agree the odds don't look so good for solving a sixty-year-old murder. I'll have better luck at foiling dastardly plots to steal the Eudoxia Reliquary, curse and all." Will pushed to his feet. "Why do I always end up with the weird shit?"

Ben's smile warmed his eyes. "Because you're so good at it. Stay sharp. If von Lahr is involved, he's had time to bring in help. And the way things look right now, I might not have anyone available to back you up."

"Not a problem. We lone wolves in sheep's clothing prefer to work alone."

Ben didn't look as if that made things better. He stood up. "I want you to check in twice a day with Ellie or Shaunda. A missed check-in means trouble and I'll respond accordingly. I have a feeling this could get complicated."

Will gave a derisive snort. "What's complicated about a bunch of greedy bastards trying to double-cross each other? Unless von Lahr decides to make a personal appearance -- and I doubt we'll get that lucky -- nothing will surprise me."

Chapter Two

"Do I have a date-from-hell story?" Mia Dolan set her tea on the cafe table. "Vanessa, any woman who's ever fallen in love has been stupid in love."

"Impossible." Vanessa Sharpton stirred a straw through the whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles of her mocha smoothie. "You have all the luck with men."

"Are we remembering the same past five years, here? My ex?"

"Philip was a lovely fellow. He just needed a keeper, not a wife."

As Mia had quickly discovered. Adorably absentminded men made poor husbands. "You're also forgetting that guy from the BBC. And Jonathan."

Vanessa laughed. "All right, Jonathan was quite awful. But that's still only a few failures out of many, many more successes. My track record with men is far worse than yours."

Vanessa did have an unerring talent for choosing losers and deadbeats. It had even led to a big argument a few months back that resulted in Vanessa getting her own apartment and living with the boyfriend Mia had bluntly accused of sponging off her friend.

"You and Kos have been together for nine months now, so maybe your luck has changed since Hugh dragged us to Boston," Mia said. "You all but glow these days."

Vanessa's blush deepened, bright pink against her fair, blue-eyed coloring. In contrast, Mia had inherited all of her mother's exotic Maltese darkness and none of her American father's fairness.

"I think you're trying to distract me." Vanessa's eyes were bright. "Could it be you really are embarrassed to tell me this story?"

"What else are friends for, if we can't reveal our deepest, darkest secrets?" Mia leaned forward, elbows resting on the table, and cupped her chin in her hands. As the memory drifted back, a smile curved her mouth. "My worst date was my very first date with Will."

"Ah. The Ohio boy."

"Are you sure I haven't told you this one already?"

"Positive. I remember you telling me he was a big, strapping lad who liked short skirts and sex in the woods, but that's about it."

Oh, God. She'd forgotten about the sex in the woods.

"I met Will barely a week after classes began. He was the cutest boy in the entire dorm, and when he asked me out, I almost died on the spot. I might have even squealed."

No matter how hard she tried to keep the big, sappy smile away, it kept slipping back. "He picked me up from work, and he was driving this ugly yellow car he'd borrowed from a friend. I almost didn't want to be seen getting inside it, but he was the perfect gentleman and ran around to open the door. At that point, what else could I do?"

"The male ego must be carefully nurtured," Vanessa agreed.

"It was hot and the car had no air conditioner, so we had the windows rolled down as we drove to the restaurant. I was nervous, talking so fast I was almost hyperventilating. I don't even remember what I said; I just remember how much I wanted him to like me, to think I was pretty and clever and sophisticated. Everything I wasn't feeling at the time."

Smiling, Vanessa toyed with her whipped cream topping. "When do we get to the horror?"

"That would be when the cutest guy at Ohio State pulled up to the restaurant, and I told him it was the nineties and women could open their own car doors. I got out, and when I locked the door, I realized I hadn't rolled up the window."

Strange, how she could close her eyes and still remember the bright blue sky, the smell of traffic and hot asphalt mingled with a mouth-watering charbroiled burger scent, and the warmth of the car leaking through her little black dress. "So I stuck my hand inside the window and started rolling it up."

Vanessa blinked. "From the outside?"

"Uh-huh...and the window was almost at my armpit before I realized the flaw in my plan. I can't even begin to describe how stupid I felt."

Vanessa laughed. "Did Will say anything?"

Mia took a sip of her tea. "He never let me live it down, the bastard."

Vanessa pointed her straw at Mia. "You're smiling as you say that."

"Oh, I know. He was such a sweet guy. Too nice for me, as it turned out, and we had nothing in common. He was a total philistine when it came to art, but I loved him like crazy anyway." The smile slipped a little. "He was my first...my first everything."

Until the offer to study in Venice had arrived, and Will had pressured her to accept. Long-distance relationships rarely worked out -- especially when the girl was immature, selfish, and puffed full of unrealistic dreams. She'd betrayed Will's trust in the most painful way possible and he'd never forgiven her for it. Regret still ached, even after all this time.

"And then there was Lorenz," she added. "And Mathieu, and Philip, and now I'm sitting here with you in a Boston café, totally man-free."

Why did that make the last twelve years sound so underwhelming?

Mia stood, brushing the thought away. "We should get back before Hugh calls. I swear, that man will give himself a heart attack before he turns fifty."

After paying their checks, they headed back to the workshop. It was only three blocks away, but the April day's warmth had faded with the setting sun, and Mia regretted not taking her coat.

Vanessa touched Mia's arm. "You did the right thing."

"I never regretted going to Venice. It's just..." She trailed off, trying to put those nebulous little tugs of emotion into words. "We were talking about getting married. We were much too young, but it doesn't excuse what I did, and I wish... Well, it doesn't matter anymore. Sometimes we get a chance to make up for mistakes; sometimes we just have to learn to live with them."

"I know," Vanessa murmured.

"I wonder how differently my life would've turned out if Will and I had gotten married." Mia let out a long sigh. "Good thing we didn't, though. I was always chasing after some grand fantasy, and Will was Mr. Solid and Steady. I'm sure he's got a nice middle-management job, is happily married to a nice woman and raising a crop of nice kids in a nice town in Ohio."

"Nice is...nice. It's something I wanted for a long time, to find someone I could be with for the rest of my life." Vanessa smiled wistfully. "It doesn't seem too much to ask for, and I don't understand why it's so hard to find."

"It's not too much to ask for. Don't ever think otherwise."

"Does anyone's life ever turn out the way they expected? Even people who don't come from a family of mad bastards like mine?" Vanessa shrugged. "I think most of us make do with whatever comes our way. That's as good as it ever gets."

A man in a suit bumped into Vanessa as he passed, knocking her off balance. She would've fallen had Mia not grabbed her, but the man never even slowed down, let alone apologized.

Mia scowled and spun on her heel. "Hey! You could've at least said 'Excuse me,' asshole!"

"Mia, don't," Vanessa said as the businessman flipped the finger in their direction. "It's okay. Come on."

Still scowling, Mia stalked down the sidewalk, hardly noticing others giving her a wide berth. "Why the hell don't you ever stick up for yourself?"

"Why should I? That's what I've got you for."

Startled, Mia wasn't sure how to interpret that cool statement until she saw Vanessa's smile. "Well, you should've at least glared at him."

They reached the unassuming single-story brick building that housed Haddington Reproductions. Security grids covered the windows, and the front door and back doors were protected by a very expensive alarm system, as was the door that led from the reception area to the workshop. Sometimes, like now, there was even a guard on duty.

Mia sighed. "Home sweet home. You almost done with the reliquary?"

"Getting there. I'm having trouble with the inlay; the colors keep coming out too bright." Vanessa grinned. "It's the Curse of the Eudoxia Reliquary. Woe and misfortune unto those who touch it. Even a fake."

"The curse doesn't seem to have done Mal Toller any harm," Mia pointed out wryly. "If you want, I can give you a hand when I'm done with the earrings."

Jewelry constituted the bulk of the Eudoxia collection, and since that was her area of expertise, Mia had been working on a steady stream of varying items while Vanessa struggled over the little reliquary.

"I don't know why Hugh's been such a pain in the ass," Mia added. "We're on schedule, and -- Hey, it looks like we have a visitor."

"That's not Mr. Toller's Benz."

Thank God. Toller was a lecherous prick who always found an opportunity to brush up against her backside when he visited the workshop.

"It must be that journalist Hugh said would be visiting this week. I didn't think we'd see him until tomorrow." Mia punched in the security code for the back door, then entered, Vanessa at her heels. "Maybe this will improve Hugh's mood. He loves being the center of attention."

As the door shut behind them with a solid thump, Mia saw Hugh by the vault with a tall, dark-haired man who stood with his back to them. She admired what she could see of him, as well as the fine cut of his suit. She hoped the front looked as good as the back. If she had to be pestered while on deadline, it would help if the pest was attractive.

Hugh wore his standard baggy black pants, black shirt, and ever-present black fedora. He caught Mia's eye and smiled.

"Ah, there you are," his deep voice boomed cheerfully. "It's about time you two got back. This is Mr. William Tiernay, the freelance journalist who's doing a piece for Antiquities Review Magazine. He's here to write a feature about our work on the Eudoxia collection."

Mia's breath stopped in her throat before the man even turned around. Heat rolled over her, and her heart beat so loudly she could hardly hear Hugh. The entire room spun down to a narrow, focused point that included only the man's face.

No matter how many years passed, she'd never forgotten the strong jaw and cheekbones, the firm, full mouth, or those dark eyes beneath impossibly long lashes.

"Mr. Tiernay, these are my two assistants, Mia Dolan and --"

"Will?" Mia interrupted, her voice an octave higher. "Oh, my God...it is you!"

Chapter Three

Will froze, staring at the wide-eyed woman in front of him. Well, it's been twelve years, idiot. What were the chances she'd still be Mia Shaeffer?

A split second later, red-hot fury filled him. He was going to fucking kill Ben Sheridan. He'd known and hadn't said a word -- unless "you won't need an alias" counted as a warning.

Shaking her head in disbelief, Mia said, "I just...I can't believe this!"

Instinct kicked in then, forcing back the shock and anger. This was a role like any other, nothing more than improvising and smoothtalking. Taking a quick, head-clearing breath, he said, "Hello, Mia. It's been a long time."

She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Generous curves filled out her black cargo pants and red silk sweater, though her curling dark hair was now shoulder-length rather than falling to the middle of her back. And her eyes...the same wide, dreamy-soft brown eyes dominated her heart-shaped face, with its single dimple on the right cheek and full mouth that smiled so easily.

That mouth now curved up in a shy smile. She hesitated, then hugged him lightly, lips brushing across his cheek. Before he could think better of it, Will hugged her back.

He was hugging one of his suspects.

He'd forgotten how she'd always fit against him just right, the top of her head coming right below his chin -- and she must've forgotten about their last conversation, all the hateful things they'd said to each other. Otherwise she never would've dared touch him like this.

Mia eased away, her smile fading as he let her go and took a step back toward much-need emotional safety.

Haddington cleared his throat. "I take it you two know each other."

"Will's an old friend from my days at the uni." She glanced at the tall, blond woman who'd come in with her, who still stood by the door. "And an old boyfriend. I'm...well, shocked doesn't cover it." Turning to Will, she said, "You're the last person I ever expected to see again."

No shit. "Yeah, it still surprises me sometimes that I ended up in the art business." That, at least, was the absolute truth.

"When I last talked with you," Mia said, "you were going to teach high school."

"And when I last talked to you, you wanted a career in museum conservation."

And a boyfriend who "understood" your needs and your dreams.

The sharp bitterness took him by surprise; he'd sworn he'd put aside the anger and blame years ago, and moved on.

"And here I am creating legal fakes, instead." She briefly dropped her gaze. "Not quite what I'd planned, but I have a certain talent for it. Gotta go where the talent takes you."

Will hoped it hadn't taken her to the wrong side of the law. In the short time he'd spent talking with Haddington, the man had struck him as too transparent to concoct any kind of scheme. The slender blonde radiated a nervousness typical of the shy and awkward; though pretty, next to Mia she faded into invisibility. His first impression was that she didn't look the type to plan or pull off a major art heist, either.

Yet within the week, he'd expose one of them as a thief.

After a moment, Will said softly, "You haven't changed much."

"I wish -- but I'm sure that's not true." A faint blush colored her cheeks. "You, on the other hand, have grown into a very handsome man. And it is nice to see you again, Will."

Awkward as hell was more like it, judging by the expression in her eyes.

"What an amazing coincidence...bloody amazing," Haddington said, beaming with undisguised delight. "You two will have a lot to catch up on, then, won't you? Since you've already talked to me, Will, please feel free to use my office if you'd like to get reacquainted with Mia. Vanessa and I can get back to work while you talk."

"Thanks, but that won't be necessary." Relief flashed across Mia's dark eyes, and Will added, "I've been in airports and planes for almost two days straight, and I was thinking of keeping things brief today and getting down to business tomorrow morning."

Initial shock and potential complications aside, the fact that he and Mia already knew each other could be useful. If nothing else, it would make asking necessary questions that much easier.

With that in mind, he turned back to Mia. "Maybe we could get together tomorrow for breakfast, before you start work?"

The blonde sighed behind him, and Mia suddenly smiled. "That would be perfect. There's a café about three blocks from here called Bella's Bistro. How about I meet you there at 7AM?"

"I'll be there. It'll be great to have a chance to catch up with each other."

Amazingly, he meant it -- and along with the realization came a stab of guilt. Dismissing it, he turned to the quiet blonde, who was watching him with undisguised curiosity. Like Mia, she was dressed casually, wearing jeans and a plain white shirt.

"My apologies, Ms. Sharpton, for not introducing myself." Smiling, he held out his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

She took his hand, squeezing it quickly before pulling away and stepping back. "No apologies required. I'd be distracted, too, if I were in your place. And please, call me Vanessa. We're not very formal here."

Haddington clapped his hands, his droopy brows making Will think of a basset hound in a fedora. "Excellent. Glad that's all settled. Now, then, you two can get back to whatever you were doing. Shall I start the grand tour, Will?"

Glad for the chance to put a little distance between him and Mia, Will nodded. "Yes, please."

The tour didn't take long. Haddington Reproductions provided an appropriately artsy reception area for clients who didn't want to risk getting paint or sawdust on their suits. The workshop was dominated by big wooden benches, computers with massive monitors, and power tools separated from the workstations to reduce noise and dust contamination. Safety goggles sat by the drill press and table saw, the sander and lathe, and the wax-casting station looked messy and well-used. The whole area smelled of wood, hot wax, paint, wet clay, glue, and oiled machine parts.

There wasn't a horizontal or vertical surface that hadn't been used for storage. Rolls of canvas hung from the ceiling, suspended over a cutting table as in a fabric store. Tall shelving units lined the back wall, each holding dozens of clear plastic bins in various sizes, full of paint tubes or jars or cans, brushes, chisels and spatulas, and a jumble of art-related tools. A bookshelf outside Hugh's office was crammed full of art and art history books.

A bench, computer desk, and microscopes for detail work equipped each workstation, and Will located the source of the pungent scent of freshly cut wood. Lumber for frames and other projects was stacked against the back wall, beside the large vault bolted to the concrete floor.

There were no windows in this area, and Will didn't notice additional cameras, not even by the vault. Still, the security was impressive; its only real flaw was that it focused on keeping unwanted people from getting inside. When it came to keeping something inside from getting out, it was all but useless.

Inside jobs were a bitch. There wasn't much any museum, gallery, or estate could do to protect itself from betrayal by a trusted insider.

"What's in the vault?" Will asked.

"Anything we need to keep secure, of course," Haddington answered, giving the bulky metal of the vault door a fond pat. "Right now we're working on three reproduction projects. One's a standard copy of Old Masters for the CEO's office at a new investment banking firm, another is a small collection of Greek vases and figures for a traveling exhibit to inner-city schools -- we're doing that one on a tight budget that's proving to be quite the challenge -- and the Eudoxia collection."

"For which the budget is limitless," Will said.

"Mal's paying us for the best of the best, and that's what we're here to deliver." Hugh moved away. "The vault's also where we keep gold leaf and silver, as well as rougher gemstones for projects that require them. We contract out to local jewelers for any actual cutting: it saves time."

"That's a specific skill?"

"Yes, and I'm not any good at it. Nor is Mia or Vanessa."

"But they have their own skills."

"Oh, yes. Vanessa is trained in art and can reproduce anything in paint or inlay from Neolithic to pop culture. Mia is my jewelry and metals expert. We get a lot of requests for jewelry reproductions, which keeps her very busy."

Will glanced at Mia. She smiled at him, then returned her attention to a pair of gold and pearl earrings he recognized. Lady Eudoxia had been a jewelry addict; not much different from any modern teenage girl who all but lived in a mall.

"And you?" Will asked. "What's your area of expertise?"

"A little of everything, though wood carving and sculpting was my forte at the British Museum. I help out wherever I'm needed."

"So is Vanessa working on the reliquary?"

Will knew she was, but he wanted a closer look. When Haddington nodded and headed around the partition to stand inside Vanessa's work cubicle, Will followed.

Will instantly picked up on the tension that hummed around the woman. "Do you mind if I watch?" he asked as he approached.

"I'm not to used to it, but I don't mind. I'm nearing the final stages now. The reds on the petals here aren't quite right. I'm having a little trouble with them."

He'd have to take her at her word, because what sat on her bench looked to his eyes identical to the pictures in the file. The reliquary was an amazing piece: barely three inches long and only an inch deep, dominated by a colorful cloisonne panel of the crucified Christ on the front with a stylized floral border. The hinges were edged in gold niello. A fragile sliver of wood attached to a sharp thorn, darkened by what some believed to be the blood of Jesus Christ himself, was still nestled within the inner compartment of the original.

A fake, like most relics from those days, but it made for a good story. The legendary curse, and the strange deaths of a number of its owners since its discovery in 1876, only added to the notoriety. The reliquary was by far the best sound bite in the funerary goods of a wealthy, privileged girl who'd died in childbirth when she'd been only nineteen.

Some people babbled when nervous, but Vanessa Sharpton seemed the quiet type. He'd have to nudge her along to get her to talk. "This must've taken you a lot of time."

"Yes, it's been quite the project. I had a couple false starts and few uneasy nights before it all started to come together." Her long, thin fingers trembled as she patiently sifted through red paint chips. She looked over at him. "It's funny, but Mia was just talking about you before we walked in."

"Vanessa!"

Will glanced at Mia, then back at a pink-cheeked Vanessa. "Really? What did she say?"

"Maybe I shouldn't have said anything. It wasn't all that --"

"We were swapping stories about dates from hell," Mia interrupted. "I told her about our first date, when I tried to roll up the window, but --"

"-- stuck your arm inside the car to roll it up. I remember that." The memory flooded back with an intensity that took him by surprise, and he couldn't help smiling.

She'd been wearing a sexy black dress and he'd wanted to touch her so badly it had hurt. Her flustered response, her self-conscious smile...damn if he hadn't fallen in love with her right then and there. As naive as he'd been, and ruled by his dick, he'd never stood a chance.

"Figures." Mia's glum voice cut across his thoughts. "Of all the things to remember, it would be that one."

"I thought you were cute." He met those dark, heavy-lidded eyes, and for a moment he completely forgot about Haddington and Vanessa. "That's what I remember, anyway."

He remembered the sex, too, which had been excellent. There'd been many good days before things had soured -- and all of it was ancient history, he reminded himself, useful now only if it could be turned to his advantage.

"Sorry," Will said to Hugh. "I know I'm not here to talk about college days."

Haddington appeared disappointed that the personal detour had ended. "Back to the boring work thing, then?"

Will laughed. "Boring? How can you, a man who spends hours working with two such beautiful and talented women, say that?"

Haddington chuckled and pushed up the brim of his fedora. "There is that."

"I bet their husbands are jealous of all the hours you spend locked away back here with them."

"Neither lovely lady is married. Not that they would have anything to do with an old bore like me anyway." In an exaggerated whisper Haddington added, "You might be interested to know that Mia is romantically unencumbered. Vanessa is, sadly, quite taken."

Despite Haddington's statement, he could still be involved with one of his employees -- or both. Will had seen too much over the years to dismiss any possibility. If Vanessa Sharpton had a boyfriend, he'd need investigating as well.

"Any more questions, then?" Haddington asked. "Or are you done for the night?"

"I've soaked up enough information for today. I'll be back tomorrow with lots of questions, though."

After collecting his briefcase, Will nodded at Mia -- and he could feel her gaze on him until the door shut behind him.

Outside, in the crisp evening air, he let out a long sigh, feeling the tension in his shoulders finally ease. Mia's presence put his cover at risk, but she'd also handed him a tailor-made role. All he had to do was slip into it and play it through to the end.

If she was guilty, he'd do the job he'd come here to do, personal feelings aside. If she was innocent, there'd be no harm. Maybe her feelings would be hurt when he suddenly disappeared, but she'd get over it.

"Karma," Will muttered, getting into his car. "And payback's a bitch, baby."

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Tough Enough

Cover

Publisher: Pocket Books
Date: March 2007
ISBN-10: 1416531394
ISBN-13: 9781416531395

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Book Description:

Ben Sheridan sends ex-detective Will Tiernay to Boston to investigate the forgery and impending theft of the priceless Eudoxia Reliquary. Will is a smooth charmer with a penchant for expensive suits; a wolf in sheep's clothing, some might even say. Will is expecting the assignment to be an easy one -- until he runs into Mia Dolan, the girl who broke his heart twelve years ago. The attraction between them is as strong as ever, and even though she's a prime suspect, Will can't help falling for Mia all over again. For Mia, Will has always been "the one that got away" -- and the one she deeply wronged long ago. With his unexpected reappearance in her life, she finally has a chance to right past wrongs, and dares to hope they'll have a second chance at love. But Mia's hopes fade as she realizes there's something darker hidden behind Will's genial facade -- and that "something" threatens not only their fragile, new-found trust in each other, but her very life.

"She's hit her stride in a big way; this series is a surefire winner!" – Romantic Times