Countdown

by Marie Ferrarella

Chapter One

Nikki Alexander knew trouble when she saw it. It was a gift, a meticulously well-honed ability that, in her case, had been passed down from father to daughter. The ability, lucky for her, transcended such distractions as handsome features and a charismatic smile that would have been able to reduce the Wicked Witch of the West to maidenly shy, self-conscious giggles. Someone else might not have been able to see past the fascinating window dressing, but Nikki always could, which was what made her so good at her job. And the tall, well-dressed, drop-dead-gorgeous man standing on the wrong side of the security room door was just that: trouble. With a capital T. Not because, with his dark blond hair and clear-water blue eyes, he was quite possibly the best-looking man she’d ever seen, but because there was something about the man that made the hairs at the back of her neck stand up at attention, even as her breath decreased and her heart rate increased. There wasn’t a single part of her being that wasn’t on high alert. He wasn’t supposed to be in here. He wasn’t part of the security team and anyone who wasn’t part of the team couldn’t just waltz into the security room, with its scads of surveillance monitors, at will. And yet, there he was, acting as if he belonged. As the head of the Janus’s security team—or at least the head of the team until Matthew Schaffer, the casino owner’s handpicked choice for the job got in from Los Angeles—Nikki was on the lookout for any potential threat-in-the-making on the casino grounds. In search of acceptance and attention, Luke Montgomery, the casino’s flamboyant owner, was planning to hold a huge charity event at the Janus beginning in three days’ time. An event in which some of the world’s most priceless pieces of jewelry would be on display to either be auctioned off, or simply drooled over. Nikki was acutely aware of the fact that the temptation for professional thieves to pit themselves against the casino’s state-of-the-art security system had to be almost irresistible. Which was why she hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours a night ever since Montgomery had taken her aside to award her this temporary position. Nikki knew the Janus’s security system was top-notch, but she still wished she could, for the duration of the preparations, sprout a pair of eyes in the back of her head—just in case. All she had to do was keep everything running smoothly until just before the actual event. By then, Schaffer would be in Vegas to take over and this would be his headache. But for now, it was hers. So who the hell was this blond guy and how had he gotten in? No one in security had asked permission to bring in a visitor. It was lunchtime and thus their full complement of people was on the low side. None of the three people at their desks, monitoring the various activities on the casino floor, seemed to know the man. Because of his easygoing manner, each probably assumed that someone else in the room knew him.

Nice trick, Nikki thought wryly. She lost no time in striding across the floor to reach him and demand to know what he was doing here. The intruder was pausing to exchange a few words with Melinda Ellis. As she recalled, Melinda was the security team’s latest hire. Nikki made a mental note to go over Melinda’s background check again. Just in case. Reaching the stranger, Nikki caught just the faintest whiff of the man’s cologne. It was almost disarmingly sexy, just like the man himself. Blocking out the scent’s effect, Nikki tapped the stranger on the shoulder. “Can I help you?” she asked crisply. The object of her query turned around. There was no indication in his countenance that she’d taken him by surprise. On the contrary, he looked as if he’d been expecting her. “Yes,” he replied smoothly after a long, pregnant pause. “I’d like a personal tour.” Because his eyes languidly strolled over the length of her body before he made the request, Nikki felt as if she was being propositioned rather than asked for what he might have assumed to be a legitimate service. His unabashed gaze made her feel naked and definitely blurred her ability to focus. For a minute. “Of what?” she wanted to know. The smile on his lips was at once intimate, sexy and, oddly enough, innocent. It was as if he knew exactly what she was thinking and how unsettling his blatant assessment of her was. He continued to smile, as if he was sharing a moment that only one of them was privy to. With a nod toward Melinda, the stranger moved away from her desk before saying, “Of the security system, of course.” “Of course,” Nikki echoed. Definitely trouble, she thought. And brazen. “And just why would you want that?” she challenged, her tone growing deadly serious. Nikki made eye contact with Richard, the security expert on the far end of the room. No words were needed. Her meaning was clear: Watch this one. “I would think the answer to that would be obvious,” the stranger replied. “So it would seem,” she allowed. God, they were making thieves more and more audacious these days. “But tell me anyway. Humor me,” she coaxed with only the slightest hint of sarcasm. This time, the smile that unfurled on the man’s near-perfect mouth shot straight to her gut as if it had been fired at point-blank range. Whatever else he had, the man certainly had style, she thought. Style and bravado. Good thing she’d had her shots against both. “With pleasure,” the stranger replied good-naturedly. “I want a personal tour so that I can feel confident that my great-grandmother’s beloved necklace will be safe on display here.” The answer took some of the fire out of Nikki’s veins. If the man was on the level, she was walking on thin ice here, she realized. It was a touchy situation. She ran the risk of insulting a genuine contributor if

she acted as if she didn’t believe him and pressed him for more information. Conversely, she ran the equal risk of leaving herself at the mercy of a possible jewel thief if she was too honest and open in her response. Better to err on the side of caution. It was one of her father’s rules. “And just who would your grandmother be?” she asked politely. “Great-grandmother,” the stranger corrected smoothly. “And she was—” he emphasized the last word, letting her know without saying so that the woman had passed on to her reward “—Evelyn Howard.” His eyes warm and friendly, the man put out his hand to her. “Great-grandmother was very partial to that necklace, and very partial to me,” he added without a trace of hubris. “And my mother’s passing has made me the current guardian of—” “—the Island Star,” Nikki concluded, her voice echoing just half a beat after his. Damn, she thought, that made him one of the New York Howards, a family that was rumored to be richer than God. Nikki caught her breath. Had she just made her first temporary-head-of-security blunder and offended not just a contributor but the contributor of the centerpiece of the entire event?

Chapter Two

The hairs at the back of her neck were still at attention. Conflicting emotions were simultaneously rampaging throughout her body. She definitely needed more input. Starting with a name. “And you are?” He continued to hold her hand just tightly enough to telegraph a connection. And his interest. He had a way of looking at her that made her feel as if there was no one else in the room. “Intrigued.” He was certainly brash enough to be one of the legendary Howards. Or a thief, a small voice whispered in her head. Which was it? Nikki took in a breath and plunged in. She had no idea what anyone in the Howard family looked like, and that included this supposed envoy. “Well Mr. ‘Intrigued,’ I’m afraid I’m going to have to see some I.D.” He nodded, reaching into his back pocket. “I’d expect nothing less.” “Good, then I assume that you’ve come with some.” Because of the way the overhead lighting hit the glass doors surrounding the security room, the people inside could see faint images of their reflections. The self-proclaimed member of the Howard family glanced toward the door through which he’d come and looked at his reflection. He grinned.

“Yes, that’s definitely me.” He was either incredibly sure of himself, or an idiot. Either way, he wasn’t taking a step further in any direction until she had more. “You’ll forgive me but I’m going to have to have something more substantial than that to go on.” The man laughed. “You’re forgiven, Ms. Alexander.” He took out his wallet and, opening it, held it up for her examination. “I know this is serious stuff and my great-grandmother would appreciate your dedication, but for your own sake, maybe you should lighten up just a little. All work and no play…” His voice trailed off as he closed his wallet. Nikki caught his hand and stopped him from tucking the wallet back into his pocket. “I’m not being paid not to be dull, Mr. Howard,” she told him, extrapolating on the old adage. “I’m being paid to be thorough. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a closer look—at your I.D.,” she clarified when he looked at her in a completely knowing, familiar way. Obligingly, he removed his driver’s license from behind its retaining plastic and handed it to her. “I don’t mind you taking a closer look at all. Look all you want, Ms. Alexander.” She could have sworn someone had turned up the heat in the security room. The watermark embedded in the laminated plastic looked in order. If it was a forgery, it was at the top of its class. She held the license out to him. “How do you know my name, Mr. Howard?” “Simon,” he corrected her. “Calling me ‘Mr. Howard’ makes me feel like my father and I don’t want to feel like my father.” He tucked the license back into his wallet and the wallet back into his pocket. “And I know a lot more about you than just your name.” “Really.” “Really,” he responded. “The rich are not always idle,” he assured her. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t stay rich for very long. I know that you’ve just been promoted to head of security and that the promotion is only temporary—I’d protest that if I were you—until Matt Schaffer’s plane touches down from L.A. two days from now. I know your father was a decorated NYPD detective who died in the line of duty when you were twenty-two and that you idolized him. I know that you’ve spent your whole adult life trying to make him proud of you just in case there’s a hole in some cloud and he’s looking down on you from heaven. I also know that this event means a lot to Luke Montgomery and that he hopes to put himself on the map with it. Did I leave anything out?” he asked, mildly amused. Rich or not, he had more than a touch of wise guy in him. “What color underwear am I wearing?” “Black.” And then he grinned, his blue eyes dancing. “But that’s purely a guess,” he added. “Am I right?” She drew in a breath. “Why have you done this much research?” she wanted to know. “Because while we are a very philanthropic family, we do not take handing over our jewels lightly, no matter for how short a duration of time. And you didn’t answer my question. Am I right?” She could feel her cheeks beginning to burn. “That isn’t important.” “You were the one to bring up the question,” he pointed out innocently. “And I’m the one terminating that line of discussion,” she informed him. “Now, if you want a tour of our security measures—”

“Among other things,” he interjected. Okay, it was time to nip this in the bud. She couldn’t focus if he kept sashaying in front of her like this, saying things and giving her looks that were guaranteed to raise her body temperature. “Do you always come on this strong?” A slight, careless shrug accompanied his words. “Only when I’m interested.” Even if he wasn’t gold-tipped, he was the kind of man who only needed to look in a woman’s direction to draw her to him. What did he want with her? “I thought you said you were interested in our security measures.” “That, too.” And then she saw him grow just a tad more serious. “Your Mr. Montgomery talked my father, Sebastian, into agreeing to put Great-grandmother’s necklace on display—smooth talker, Mr. Montgomery—but the family would like a few more reassurances before we allow the necklace to be put out there to tempt every would-be thief without a retirement plan into trying to make off with it. It’s nothing against your competence,” he assured her, “but we tend to be a little overly cautious after the last attempt.” “The last attempt?” He nodded. “It happened a couple of years ago. A thief broke in, somehow managed to bypass all our security systems. Systems the family paid a great deal of money for.” “You kept the necklace on the premises?” she asked incredulously. “Why wasn’t it in a safety-deposit box locked away in a bank?” The question brought back his smile. And took away her breath. “Exactly what my father kept insisting. But technically, the necklace belonged to my mother at the time and she never saw the good in having things if she couldn’t touch them whenever she wanted to.” “So what happened?” “The thief, a man named McAllister—oddly enough we share a first name—made off with it. The break-in was sheer poetry, really.” He shook his head in wonder. “In and out without leaving a single trace.” He was being very charitable in his assessment, she thought. “I never read or heard anything about the robbery.” “Don’t see why you should have. Not the kind of thing we liked to see publicized.” But there was obviously a happy reunion because the piece was going to be put on display. “What did you do to get the necklace back?” “You mean did we hire someone to hunt the thief down?” “Yes.” “No.” She didn’t understand. “But you have the necklace.” “Yes.”

“How?” “Turns out the thief had a heart. He found out my mother was dying and that she was particularly connected to the necklace. He brought it back to her. Gave it to her personally.” “And got caught?” she guessed. He smiled. “Seems that breaking in to return something turned out to be a little trickier than breaking in to steal it.” “What happened to the thief?” “He’s still around somewhere, I hear. My mother refused to let my father press charges. My father was so in love with her he always did everything she asked him to.” “How is he now? Your father,” she clarified. Simon took a breath before answering. “Learning to deal with his grief. Part of that is throwing himself into all the charity work she used to do.” “And putting the necklace on display for Mr. Montgomery’s charity gala is part of that.” It was a statement, not a guess. “Absolutely.” And then he laughed, his mood lightening. “All this talking has made my throat dry. Join me for a drink?” he asked. “I’m on duty,” she pointed out. “Doesn’t have to be alcoholic, just liquid. You do drink liquids, don’t you, Ms. Alexander?” “On occasion.” His eyes were melting away any barriers she thought she had safely in place. “Would this be one of those occasions?” “Well, seeing as how for the next two days you’re Mr. Montgomery’s most important guest—” “Maybe longer,” he interjected, his eyes holding hers. “—I can’t see how I can say no.” “Neither can I.” He extended his elbow to her. “Lead the way, Nikki.” They’d gone from Ms. Alexander to Nikki in the space of less than ten minutes. The man was a smooth, smooth operator, Nikki thought, slipping her arm through his. She had yet to decide if that was a good thing, or a bad one.

Chapter Three

The Starlight Room was the smallest of the bars and restaurants located inside the Janus. It was also Nikki’s personal favorite. Occasionally she went there after hours to be alone. Other times, she went with friends. The bar was small enough to generate an intimate aura, yet public enough so that someone could feel safe no matter what the situation. Nikki didn’t know why she needed the latter assurance while in the company of Simon Howard, but she did. Signaling a hostess as they walked in, Nikki waited until they were seated to ask for a diet cream soda. She was surprised when Simon asked for the same thing. “I would have taken you for a scotch-and-soda man.” “And you would have been right.” “Then…?” She tilted her head as her sentence trailed off, waiting for him to fill it in. “As you pointed out, it’s early.” “No, I pointed out that I’m on duty.” “Same thing. We can have something stronger later,” Simon told her, lowering his voice seductively and leaning in closer as he added, “when you’re off duty.” “We?” Just when had they become a set? Or was he just accustomed to women falling all over themselves to accommodate him? That had never been her style, to follow the herd. “I’m counting on you to keep me company, Nikki.” On anyone else’s lips, that would have sounded like a trite line. Simon Howard made it sound like a sincerely voiced wish. “I know that diamonds are supposed to be a girl’s best friend, but the necklace isn’t much of a conversationalist and I don’t know anyone in this town.” He smiled at her as the hostess returned with their carbonated drinks. Taking his, he raised it slightly as if he was silently toasting her. “Here’s to a new…friendship,” he declared, his eyes saying far more than that. “Mr. Howard—” “Simon, please.” “All right, ‘Simon Please,’” she obliged. “As Mr. Montgomery’s honored guest, I am to show you every courtesy. Emphasis on courtesy, not on every.” “Understood,” he told her warmly. “All I want is a friendly face next to me. I never force myself on a lady.” He wouldn’t have to, she thought. The man was smooth enough to make a woman gratefully believe that whatever happened was her idea. “I find the men that do to be absolutely reprehensible.” “Nice to know chivalry isn’t dead. Tell me, what made your father agree to this gala?” she asked. “Word has it that your family is usually a no-show to these kinds of events.” He took a slow, languid sip of his soda before replying. Nikki had the impression he was studying her as he framed his answer. Why? Why bother to second-guess what a lowly head-of-security wanted to hear when you were thought to be one of the richest men in the country?

“I did a little soul searching,” Simon told her. “My mother was very big on charities, very big on ‘giving back,’ so to speak. I decided that maybe it was time that I stop thinking only of myself and follow the path that she would have wanted to see me take. The path she would have continued taking if only she’d been given the chance. My father feels the same way.” “You were close to your mother?” A bittersweet smile played on his lips. There were traces of regret evident. “Not as close as I should have been,” he admitted. “But then, I always thought there would be enough time to make up for it later. Only it turned out that there was no later. Hindsight is a bear.” It wasn’t often that she felt her heartstrings tugged these days. She liked to keep her professional life and her private one separate. But every so often, they collided. This was one of those times and she could feel her professional barriers disappearing. Maybe it was because she felt the same way about her mother. She and Fiona Alexander had been at that awkward impasse where she’d known everything and her mother had known nothing—otherwise known as the teen years—when her mother had died, her life snuffed out by microbes that couldn’t even be seen by the naked eye. Deadly microbes that didn’t care that Fiona was a wife and a mother whose husband and daughter needed her badly. They just took her. “I never got a chance to be decent to my mother, either,” she heard herself admitting, and it was almost as if she was sitting on the sidelines, watching someone with her face have this conversation with Mr. Rich-and-Gorgeous. Simon opened his mouth and she knew he was about to protest the words she’d just used. But then he closed it again and shrugged those broad shoulders good-naturedly. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe they’re right. Maybe teenagers should be put to sleep for the duration of their teen years.” “Then they’d only wake up to be know-it-all idiots in their twenties instead of in their teens. People can’t change their ways if they don’t learn how myopic they really are.” “Well put,” he agreed. He studied his near-empty glass for a moment, then raised his eyes to hers. Nikki felt her stomach quivering just a touch. Hunger pangs, she told herself. She was just having hunger pangs. Ah, but for what? a small voice in her head taunted. She shut it down. “Tell me, what made you choose this line of work?” he wanted to know. As he asked his question, he lightly placed his hand on hers, his fingers grazing her wrist. She could feel her temperature rising. Despite the soda, her mouth was dry. So dry that it was hard to speak. “My father was a cop,” she reminded him. He nodded, as if fully aware and sympathetic of the things that traditions made people do. “So why aren’t you one, too?” She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was telling him things he already knew. She answered anyway. “I was. For a while. I had the misfortune of being shot in the line of duty.” “And that scared you,” he concluded, his eyes never leaving her face. “No,” she contradicted, “that scared my father.” His was the first face she saw when she opened her eyes at the hospital some ten hours later. It was completely gray, as if he’d died in her place. “I hated

seeing him like that, hated making him live with the same kind of fear my mother always had, so I went into security work after I mended.” “Mended,” Simon repeated. “From the gunshot,” she explained, wondering if he was even paying attention to what she was saying. A man like Simon Howard had a lot of things on his mind. There was no room for the life story of a woman he would never see again after the gala was over. “Did it leave a scar?” he asked out of the blue. “The bullet,” he added for clarity. “Not anywhere where someone can see it.” The intrigued look that came into Simon’s eyes threw her off balance. It also upped her body temperature by several degrees. Again. So did hearing him murmur, “We’ll see,” under his breath.

Chapter Four

The next moment, Simon took one last sip and set his empty glass down on the table. “You still owe me a tour,” he reminded her. “Right.” Nikki was used to pulling herself together at a moment’s notice. Working for Luke Montgomery was a little like boot camp. She had to be ready to jump into action at any hour of the day or night. Montgomery both valued that and required it from all his employees. Or at least the ones who intended to remain in his employ. She watched Simon take out his wallet and put her hand on his to stop him. “Your money’s no good here.” All the contributors to the event were to be comped, from their suites down to their drinks. Simon inclined his head and after a beat, put his wallet away. “Ironic, isn’t it?” “What is?” “When you’re rich, no one asks you to pay for anything. It’s only when you can’t that they want to see the color of your money.” He had a point, Nikki thought. “Mine is not to reason why,” she told him. “I’m just supposed to follow orders.” “I’ll keep that in mind.” His electric grin hummed right through her. “You realize that while I can take you on a tour of where the jewelry is to be displayed, I can’t really go into any kind of detail about what security measures will be put into motion.” “Then how will I know that the Island Star will be safe?”

“Mr. Howard—Simon,” she corrected before he had a chance to, “Mr. Montgomery has taken every precaution to make sure that not only your great-grandmother’s precious necklace, but every piece in the show will be safe. I can promise you that the security system is state of the art, fresh off the drawing board. The bad guys haven’t even gotten wind of it.” He surprised her by taking her hand in his and looking into her eyes. “Nikki, no matter how fantastic a system the good guys come up with, I can guarantee you that the bad guys will find a way around it. The only question is, how long will it take them to do it?” “That’s a little cynical,” she observed. As if suddenly aware that he was holding her hand, he released it. “No, that’s pragmatic,” he countered. “The bad guys like the challenge of outwitting the good guys.” “And the money?” He laughed. “They like that, too. But the best thieves are in it foremost for the challenge. That’s what makes it so difficult to stay one step ahead of them.” “Don’t worry. We’re two steps ahead,” she assured him. Her gut told her that if she faltered in any way, Simon Howard might decide to pull the Island Star out of the gala, and while there were many other stunning pieces that were going to be on display, the Island Star was to be the center of the entire show. She knew that Montgomery was counting on it. That he had been overjoyed to get the Howards to agree to put the necklace on display in the first place. “Two steps?” Simon asked. “Two,” she repeated. “At least.” “You seem very sure of yourself.” “I am.” “That makes me feel better,” he admitted. “I’m glad to hear that. Let me take you to the ballroom where the jewels are going to be displayed.” “I’m all yours,” he told her. Why did that sound so intimate? They both knew he was only being accommodating, not literal. Despite all logic, a warm shiver danced along her spine before she could steel herself off. It wasn’t as if she was a novice at this. Granted, she’d never been head of security before, temporarily or otherwise, but she had dealt with rich patrons before. For the most part, they were either distant, snobbish or incredibly naive. Simon Howard was none of the above. He was too damn sexy for her own good. And she knew that he knew it, which only made things even more difficult. Her kingdom for a pushy rich guy, she thought. That, at least, she could handle. Her walls would be up again, instead of crumbling each time her hand—or soul—was touched. And yet, throughout it all, something was nagging at her like the refrain of a song she once knew but had since forgotten—all but the melody, which refused to go quietly into that good night.

“There are going to be guards at all the entrances during the gala,” she went on to tell him as they entered the Janus’s largest ballroom. “And before and after?” “They’ll be there, too, until the last of the pieces leaves the premises with its proper owner.” “What precautions have you taken just before the gala starts? It’s going to take time to get all the jewels into the display cases.” “We’ve got that covered.” “No offense, but the insurance company that my father sends incredibly high premiums to is going to require a little more detail than that, or they won’t allow the Island Star to be part of your gala.” Fair enough, she thought. “Each piece that is set apart will be lovingly surrounded with beams invisible to the naked eye but sensitive enough to go off if so much as a gnat crosses them. I can give you a demonstration.” He gestured toward an empty case that had just been placed on a stand. “Please.” “Give me a second.” She took off her ring and placed it on the empty pedestal, then backed away. Taking out her cell phone, she called someone in the security room. “Alice, I need a quick demonstration. Turn on the system over display area nineteen.” Waiting a beat, Nikki nodded, then turned toward Simon. “If you would get my ring for me, Mr. Howard.” Obligingly, Simon reached toward the ring, only to have all sorts of alarms, high-pitched and low, go off. He quickly withdrew his hand, but the noise continued. The noise also summoned a squadron of security guards flooding the ballroom through all the entrances, hands on their weapons. “Just a trial run, people,” Nikki announced, waving them back. “Good to see everyone’s on their toes. You can shut it off now, Alice,” she said into the cell. “Nice job,” she added just before she flipped her cell closed again. She looked at Simon. “Satisfied?” His eyes swept over her slowly, intimately touching her body before he finally answered her question. “Getting there.”

Chapter Five

Nikki cleared her throat. “Anything else I can show you?” He said nothing in reply, but his eyes spoke volumes. “Maybe I should rephrase that—” “No,” he told her, placing his hand on her arm as if to physically stop her from continuing. “Let me savor the image for a moment.” Her intuition kept telling her that something was off. Simon Howard appeared to have everything—looks, money, charm, any one of which would garner him more than enough female companionship. All he needed to do was snap his fingers. Why, then, was he coming on to what in his world would be described as “the help”?

Part of her said to just enjoy it. Another part, the part that had been so carefully trained from an early age by her father, said to tread carefully—for a number of reasons, some of which she hadn’t had the time to figure out. “While you’re savoring, let me make sure that your suite is ready for you. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.” “I like to do the unexpected.” Her eyes met his. “I’m sure.” “It keeps people guessing.” Just the mere presence of you would do that. Mercifully, she kept that thought to herself. The suite reserved for Simon Howard—at no charge—was palatial. Thinking back, Nikki was fairly certain that the first house she lived in with her parents could have easily fit into the suite with room to spare. It must be nice, being rich. “It isn’t always, you know,” Simon told her. Startled, she swung completely around to face him. “You read minds as a hobby or a vocation?” she asked, managing to sound blasé rather than the way she actually felt—rattled. “No, but I can read faces and yours was opened just then. Not hard to figure out what you’re thinking.” “Why isn’t it?” she asked. “Nice to be rich,” she added, in case he’d lost the thread of the conversation. She knew she almost had. Looking into those cloudless blue eyes of his had her all but falling into them, head over heels. “Well, for one thing, you never know if people are being nice to you because you’re you—or because you’re wealthy. Makes it very hard to relax and be yourself. For another, people are always trying to find ways to hit you up, subtly or otherwise. You have no idea how many requests for money the family gets every day. Hard to separate the genuine causes from the ones sent in by people who just believe they deserve a piece of the pie by virtue of their existence.” “Don’t you have people for that?” “My mother used to read every piece of mail herself. I try to honor her memory by doing some of that myself.” He moved closer to her. Or maybe it just felt that way. All she knew was that suddenly, her pulse was racing around in circles because it had nowhere to go. “What time are you off duty?” “If there’s no emergency, six.” He placed his hand against the small of her back as he leaned in a tad closer. “Think there’ll be any emergencies?” “God, I hope not.” That wasn’t supposed to come out, but it did. She held her breath. “Could we get together at six? If there are no emergencies,” he qualified. She thought of the security system she wanted to review one last time before the display items began arriving. But she had a decent staff and it wasn’t as if she hadn’t already done it three times over. She was just being incredibly cautious.

“All right, I don’t see why not.” “Good.” He nodded. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” His smile isolated her from her thoughts and seemed to tug her into his personal space. “Come hungry,” he told her. “I don’t like to eat alone.”

***
“He could have any one of a legion of women, why me?” Nikki asked, bouncing her thoughts off Kelly Anderson, her coworker and possibly her oldest friend in Vegas. “Because somewhere, in some life, you must have done something awfully good,” Kelly pronounced with a toss of her short, dark hair. “I don’t know, Kelly. I’m getting vibes off him.” Kelly sighed and closed her eyes for a second. “So am I.” “Not those kinds of vibes,” Nikki said impatiently. The ambivalent feelings racing through her, tugging her one way, then another, were driving her crazy. Kelly wrapped her slender fingers around Nikki’s wrist, obviously feeling for a pulse. “Strange, you seem to be alive, and yet, odd things are coming out of your mouth.” She released her grasp. “How can you not melt when that man looks at you?” “I’m not paid to melt.” “You’re not being paid to be a plaster saint, either.” “There’s something off, Kelly. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is.” “Tell you where my fingers would go…” There was no misreading Kelly’s grin, or her meaning. “You don’t have to tell me where they’d go. I know.” “Good, then I don’t have to hit you upside your head to jump-start your brain—which has obviously gone into a coma. If the man wants to ‘see’ you, why don’t you just take off early? Hell, Montgomery told you this position was just temporary. Day after tomorrow, Cinderella, you go back to the ashes and the drudgery. Why not enjoy your time with the prince while you can?” “If you can get your brain back to reality for a minute, I want you to look up everything you can about a Simon McAllister—” It was clear the name meant nothing to Kelly, either. “Who’s that?” Nikki was playing a hunch but there was no point in going into that until she had something more to go on. “That’s what I intend to find out. And get me Sebastian Howard’s private line.” “Why?” “Because I want to ask him a few questions about his son.” “Why don’t you just go straight to the horse’s mouth yourself?”

“Because I’m not sure I’ll get the right answers. Don’t look at me like that. We’re being paid to keep things safe, not necessarily to make nice.” Kelly laughed. “Make nice? Honey, I’d make more than ‘nice’ if I got the chance. Okay, I’ll get you what you asked for—on one condition.” Nikki stared at her. “Condition?” “Yeah.” Kelly winked. “Promise you’ll do it once for me.” Kelly was obviously letting her imagination run off with her. “I don’t have any intentions of ‘doing it’ at all.” Kelly sighed deeply. “Where have I failed you?” Hands on her friend’s back, Nikki gave her a slight push toward the security room. “Just go get me that information, Kelly.” Shaking her head, Kelly left the room. “Wouldn’t know a golden opportunity if it bit her,” she mumbled under her breath—just loud enough for Nikki to hear.

Chapter Six

Well, that was that, Nikki thought as she left her office several hours later. The quick background check on McAllister had led nowhere. The phone call to Sebastian Howard had given her pat answers. The family patriarch had assured her that yes, his son had been dispatched to Las Vegas to go over the security system at the Janus before he would send his necklace to the casino via his private jet. His description of his son had matched the man who’d introduced himself as Simon Howard to a tee. The senior Howard had gone so far as to e-mail her a photograph of his son. That alone should have set her mind at ease and returned the hairs at the back of her neck to their original position. So why was she still feeling uneasy? Maybe because you’re attracted to him and you don’t trust men you’re attracted to. There was that nagging voice again, saying things she didn’t want to hear. Just because she’d been taken in by a con man several years ago and had lost her heart, not to mention several other things, was no reason to distrust the male species as a whole. There were some good men left in the world. Her father had been a good man, she reminded herself. “It’s after six. You didn’t call me.” She turned around and found herself looking into Simon’s eyes. And nearly drowning in a blue pool. It took her a second to pull herself together. “A few of the display pieces arrived early. I was making sure that they were properly secured.” He nodded. “You know, your team seems to be very capable.” “They are,” she assured him.

“Then why didn’t you delegate your responsibilities to them?” Several excuses rose to her lips, but she dismissed them in favor of the simple truth. “Never learned how,” she admitted. “You should. It’s liberating,” he told her. “But I know what you mean. I never felt things were taken care of unless I saw to them personally.” He smiled into her eyes. “I guess we both have trust issues.” “I guess we do,” Nikki agreed. “So why don’t you join me for dinner?” he suggested, smiling into her eyes. “And build up some trust?” She was about to offer what sounded like a lame excuse even to her own ears when she saw Kelly coming toward her. The other woman nodded at her as she approached. “Just wanted you to know that I’ve assigned Wallace to the Von Braun diamond collection and Peterman to the Steins.” Simon looked delighted at the news. She should have realized that the names would mean something to him and that he’d put two and two together, getting the obligatory four. He took her hand and laced his fingers through it, even as he nodded his thanks toward Kelly. “You see, everything’s covered. So now you have no excuse not to have dinner with me.” “None at all,” Kelly guaranteed, punctuating her words with a quick wink in her direction. “You two crazy kids go, have fun. The ‘fort’ is officially being held down, ‘boss.’” Simon gently guided her away from Kelly and toward the bank of elevators that would take them to his luxurious tower suite. “Unless, of course, you don’t want to have dinner with me.” “No, I do.” Did that come out sounding too eager? “I mean—” Nikki paused, then tried again. “It’s just that I’m worried. This is the biggest event of its kind. Certainly the biggest the Janus has ever seen. If anything goes wrong—” “All the diamonds are insured, Nikki. The worst thing that can happen is that several high-profile insurance companies will be flooded with paperwork.” He lightly ran his fingertip over the furrow between her eyes, smoothing it out. “Stop worrying.” “You seemed rather concerned about the level of security this morning,” she pointed out. “That was before I had a chance to talk things over with you. Now I’m not concerned at all. I have faith in you and your team.” His smile was warm and the inside of her stomach tightened. Hard. “Any thief would have to be crazy to try to steal a single gem, much less an entire collection from the Janus.” The elevator doors opened. Simon ushered her into the elevator car and brought her knuckles up to his lips. “Now relax,” he coaxed, his breath caressing her skin just before he brushed his lips against it. She felt her insides lighting up like a Roman candle about to go off. Relaxing wasn’t possible. “Easy for you to say,” she breathed. “Actually,” he replied, sinking his hands into her soft, light blond hair as he brought his mouth down to hers, “not easy at all.” It never even occurred to Nikki to protest, not with her heart hammering so hard and every single fiber of her being holding its breath until his lips touched hers.

She did, however, have the presence of mind to shift into the opposite corner, where the security camera couldn’t see them. Fireworks went off at first contact and she knew she was in trouble. A lot of trouble. Because, without a single drop of alcohol having passed her lips, the man made her feel utterly intoxicated. With effort, Nikki pulled her head back, even though all she wanted to do was get lost in his embrace, in his kiss. The elevator doors were opening. “I think we’re here,” she managed to get out. Blinking, she glanced beyond the parted doors. “On your floor.” “God, I hope so.” Weaving his fingers through hers again, Simon quickly walked out of the elevator car and headed to his suite. He slid his card key across the slot and unlocked the door to his suite. The moment she crossed the threshold, he closed it in a fluid movement, his hand just above her head. “I thought you said we were going to dinner,” she said with effort. “I’m thinking room service.” “I’m not,” she breathed. The smile on his lips was incredibly sensual as it unfurled by inches. “A lady after my own heart.” Her breath was coming in smaller and smaller snatches. “I’m not after anything.” “I am,” he told her, slowly beginning to undo the three buttons on her jacket. He slid the jacket off her shoulders as he kissed her for a second time. Harder and deeper than the first time. Her head was spinning badly. This was not the way to maintain customer relations, at least, not the way Luke Montgomery would approve of. But right now, she didn’t want approval. What she wanted was something completely out of bounds. Completely wanton. It had been a very long time since she had felt this vibrant, this alive. No, she silently corrected herself as the inferno within her grew, she was wrong. She had never felt this vibrant, this alive. She had never felt like this at all. Her heart was swiftly turning to the consistency of a marshmallow and her brain was getting very close to being fried. And she didn’t care. All she wanted was for this to continue, to blossom and swallow her whole. Simon laughed as she all but ripped the clothes off his body. “I take it you’re beginning to enjoy yourself.” “We’re way past beginning,” she said huskily, her lips grazing his. “Good. I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t your type.” He had to be kidding. He was every woman’s type, every woman’s fantasy. He didn’t disappoint her. Simon Howard took her to places she hadn’t even dreamed existed, raising her to heights she hadn’t thought achievable without an oxygen mask strapped over her face. And just when she thought they’d reached the limit and it was over—it wasn’t.

Sometimes, she thought, just before she was consumed by another, even more overwhelming wave of rapture, she really loved her job.

Chapter Seven

Nikki felt ravenous. But she wasn’t really sure if her hunger was due to a sudden, acute need for food, or because she craved yet another go-round with Simon. Since Las Vegas was a betting town and there’d been times when she’d pitted herself against the odds, she would have confidently gone with the latter. But her stomach decided to take part in the silent tug of war and rumbled, putting in its two cents. As luck would have it, Simon’s ear was very close to the source of the sound. His breath grazed her stomach, making it quiver just before he raised his head. A hot shiver raced along the length of her just as a smile that was nothing short of tantalizingly sinful played along his lips. “Would you like to take a break and have something to eat?” A break. That meant that there was yet more to come. Was this man even human? Making a quick assessment, she realized that she was very close to being exhausted. Thrilled, but exhausted. Maybe he needed to refuel, she thought. Cupping her hand against his cheek, she nodded. “Sounds like a plan to me.” She began to turn in order to reach for the phone on the nightstand. “I can call room service and—” Simon pulled her back to him, sliding her body against his. “Already done,” he informed her. She looked at him, puzzled. “When? You haven’t left my side—or other parts—since we walked into the suite.” “I called ahead.” He looked at his watch. “They should be arriving right about—” there was a knock on the door “—now.” “You called ahead,” she repeated as the full import of his words sank in. “You were that certain?” She wasn’t sure if she liked that or not. Reaching for the robe that he’d slung over the foot of his bed, Simon slipped it on and got up. “That I’d be hungry? Yes.” He went into the other room and she heard him opening the door just as her cell phone rang. Reluctantly she answered it. When she heard the “click” as Simon closed the door, Nikki went to join him wearing the complimentary hotel robe she’d found hanging in the closet. “So then there’s only one serving,” she said. One glance at the table that room service had rolled in told her otherwise. There were two settings. She raised a quizzical eyebrow as she fixed him with a look.

“I’m an optimist,” he told her as he removed the metal cover from each dish. Setting the covers aside, he aimed yet another bone-melting smile at her. “I was hopeful you’d join me.” “I see.” For a moment, Nikki weighed her options. Had he been hopeful, or just confident that she wouldn’t say no? “You’re used to women saying yes to you.” “You make me sound like a womanizer. I’m not,” he protested. He gestured toward the table, making it a metaphor for the entire situation. “This sort of thing happens a lot less frequently than you’d imagine.” Amusement curved her mouth. “What, every other day instead of every day?” He laughed and shook his head. “Not even close.” Deftly, he changed the subject. “They tell me your chef’s the best in the business. It would be a shame to let all this go to waste.” “I didn’t say I was leaving,” she told him. “I was just gathering information.” Nikki noticed that the champagne was already poured. After a bat, she took the glass that was closest to her and raised it in a toast. “To the Island Star and the charity event that brought her—and you—here.” “To the Island Star,” he echoed, raising his glass to his lips. Having taken a long sip, she set her glass down then reached for her fork. The utensil slipped from her fingers to the floor. “I’ll get it,” Simon volunteered, bending down to retrieve her fork. “Ever gallant,” she murmured, taking it from him. She ran her napkin over the fork, but when she finished, instead of starting to eat, an odd expression slipped over her face. “What’s the matter?” he asked, concerned. “I don’t think I feel very good, Simon. Maybe I should lie down for a—” She never finished the sentence as her eyes closed and her head began to fall forward. Simon was instantly on his feet, catching her before her face met the plate. “Sorry, Nikki,” he apologized in a soft whisper, whisking her away from the table. He carried her back into the bedroom and gently laid her down on the bed. “I wish there was another way,” he told her, tucking the blanket around her, “but there isn’t.” Very quickly, Simon pulled a suitcase out from beneath the bed and swiftly put on the clothes that were packed inside. Within seconds, he was cocooned in black from his neck to his toes, allowing him to fade that much more readily into the shadows. He slipped a black backpack over his shoulder. For one moment, a moment he knew he didn’t have, Simon paused for one last look at the woman in his bed. A small sigh escaped his lips. “Sorry,” he said again. And then he left.

***

Borrowing a few tricks he’d learned along the way and some things he’d picked up, oddly enough, by watching movies that glorified heists and the people who committed them, Simon managed to bypass the Janus’s so-called state-of-the-art security system. It involved fooling cameras, using endless film loops and ultimately, dropping down into the ballroom via a crawl space directly above the display he’d selected. His weightless entry was enabled by a harness. He had on a pair of goggles that could see the “invisible” beams as easily as if they were actual thin, red strings. He was aware of all of the beams, aware of all the precautionary measures he had to take to successfully circumvent the system—and most of all, he was acutely aware that the high he usually sustained in besting the system was conspicuously absent this time around. And he knew why. But this was his job and he was committed to it. Still, he couldn’t help wishing that things could have gone a different route. Holding his breath, Simon slowly removed the ruby necklace he’d targeted from its stand, inching the paste imitation he’d brought into its place so that the shift in weight didn’t register and set off yet another alarm system. All told, he managed to disarm or circumvent four different security systems. The necklace safely in the pouch strapped to his waist, Simon turned his attention to raising himself up through the ceiling. He knew there were only eight minutes left before the guards made their rounds again. He glanced briefly at the emerald-and-diamond tiara in the next display. He was tempted, but that would be overkill and he knew better than to press his luck. Lady Luck only dallied so long and she was a fickle mistress at best. He’d already learned that firsthand several years ago. The ruby necklace was enough. And then, just as he began his ascent, he heard it. Heard the unnerving, very distinct sound of a gun being cocked. How had someone gotten in behind him without his hearing them? Turning his head, expecting to see one of the security guards rushing toward him, Simon found himself being surprised for perhaps the third time in his long career as a international jewel thief. “Stop right there if you don’t want me to shoot you,” Nikki ordered. The gun in her hands that was aimed straight at him reinforced her command.

Chapter Eight

Nikki expected Simon to be angry and show his true colors, assaulting her with a barrage of curses. She expected him to try to talk his way out of it with that silver tongue of his. She expected him to offer her a percentage of his take. Or various combinations of all three. She did not expect him to start to laugh. When her eyes narrowed and she shifted her weapon so that it was pointed directly at his chest, he said, “I knew I shouldn’t have underestimated you.”

“Too late.” For a cornered man, he certainly didn’t look worried. “Not really.” “Oh, yes, really,” she assured him crisply. “It’s all over, Mr. Howard. Or should I say, Mr. McAllister? Lower yourself back to the ground. Slowly.” He did as he was told. Looking truly impressed, Simon had to ask, “How did you find out?” “I have friends in high places—and some in low,” she added. His feet were firmly on the ground. She motioned for him to raise his hands. After a moment, he reluctantly obeyed. “Obviously not enough friends. Or at least, not enough to give you the full story.” She needed to call the police, Nikki thought, still keeping her weapon trained on Simon. She should have known he was just too good to be true. “I have all the story I need, McAllister—” “Either way, it’s still Simon. Simon McAllister,” he told her with a little bow. Nikki shook her head. “From where I’m standing, your name’s mud, ‘Simon.’” Still pointing her gun at him, she reached into her pocket with her left hand to get her cell phone. “You’re planning to call the police.” Nikki inclined her head as she withdrew her cell phone. “Good guess.” “I wouldn’t if I were you.” “I’m sure you wouldn’t.” She flipped open the phone. “But, fortunately for the jewels, you’re not me.” “Think,” he cautioned her. “You’ve got five pieces on early display. Why didn’t I take all of them?” Because he wasn’t stupid, she thought. Every minute spent in the ballroom would have meant a minute closer to being caught. “Because you know that greed is the undoing of even the best thief and you made your choice ahead of time.” “I took the least expensive piece,” he pointed out. That had stirred her curiosity, too. “Are you waiting for me to applaud you?” “I’m waiting for you to reason it out,” he told her calmly. He nodded toward the weapon she was holding. “Preferably without having your gun aimed at any of my vital parts while you do it.” He was asking her to lower her weapon. “Not going to happen,” she told him tersely. “Before you call in the cavalry, why don’t you place another call to Sebastian Howard?” he suggested. Another. That meant he was aware of the first call. Did he have her line tapped? “How did you know I called him?”

Simon’s smile widened. For a man whose jig was up, he looked unbelievably laid-back. “Because he told me.” “He told you.” She repeated each word slowly, incredulously. “He thought I should know that things were going according to my plan. He gave you my description, didn’t he? Sent you my photograph?” Simon obviously knew the answer to that, she thought. “Yes,” she replied through gritted teeth. “I could show you another photograph,” he volunteered. “The real Simon Howard isn’t nearly as goodlooking as I am.” “Or modest, I’m sure.” She tried to wrap her mind around this puzzle. Something was still off. “So what is it you have on Sebastian Howard? Are you holding his son somewhere, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t go along with this scheme of yours?” Simon shook his head. “You’ve been watching way too many movies,” he assured her. “And, for the record, you’re not even close. Currently, Sebastian Howard is my employer.” How stupid did he think she was? “Right. And I’m Peter Pan.” “Much too pretty to be Peter Pan.” His eyes swept over her, creating that aura of intimacy again. “Although you’re definitely agile enough.” Nikki felt her cheeks growing hot. She focused on the situation, not her reaction to the man. That had almost been her undoing. He’d used her, damn him! “Your employer?” she scoffed. Surely he could come up with something better than that. “Why would Sebastian Howard employ you?” “To see if I could break your security system—and if I could, to tell you what to do in order to fix it. He might be an incredibly charitable man these days, but that doesn’t mean he wants to risk the Island Star being stolen.” “So this is all some complicated preventive security measure?” Like she'd actually believe that. “Absolutely. Who better to test the system than me? I was the most successful jewel thief around before I retired.” “Retired,” she echoed. What she’d read was that he hadn’t surfaced for a while. That was very different from retiring. “Yes, retired. Remember that story I told you about the necklace being stolen?” “Yes.” “Well, in case you have any doubts, that was me. Since I had a change of heart and returned the necklace to Mrs. Howard, no charges were brought against me. Instead, because his wife insisted, Sebastian Howard introduced me to his insurer. Technically, I work for them.” “Testing systems?” she asked incredulously.

“Among other things, yes. You can call Mr. Howard or Anthony Wayne at Lloyd’s if you need verification.” She stared at him. “Lloyd’s. Of London?” His smile answered her question before he did. “That would be the one.” The next moment, she surprised him by quickly moving forward and slapping a pair of handcuffs on him. “You don’t mind if I keep you in cuffs until I check out your story.” His surprise melted into a seductive expression. It went right under her skin, burrowing to the very core of her. She couldn’t keep her body from tingling. “You can keep them on afterward if you like. As long as we go back to my suite.” She tried to steel herself off. “You don’t have a suite,” she reminded him. “Simon Howard has a suite.” “Sebastian Howard will pay for my accommodations,” he told her. “All you need to do is make a call to him. Use the same number you used,” he urged. “That way, you’ll know it’s on the level and you can’t suspect me of doing something underhanded. By the way, I’m really curious. I put enough sedatives into your drink to knock you out for the duration of the night. How are you still standing?” It was her turn to smile triumphantly. “Remember when I dropped the fork?” “I picked it up, yes.” “I spit the sip of the drink I’d taken into my napkin.” Simon recalled that she had it pressed to her lips when he got back up. He just assumed she was using the napkin to wipe her mouth. Touché, he thought. He had a weakness for smart women with killer curves. “What gave me away?” “The champagne was already poured. Most men like to make a production out of removing the cork and pouring the champagne into glasses.” Simon inclined his head. “I’m not most men.” “No,” she agreed, “you certainly aren’t.” Instead of calling the police, she put a call in to Kelly. “Kelly, get me Sebastian Howard on the line. Yes, I know what time it is. I’m sure he’ll appreciate getting the call, though. Thanks.” The way Simon whatever-his-last-name-was kept smiling at her warned her of the outcome of her call before it even began. Nikki flipped her phone closed. “Okay, so your story holds up and you’re in the clear.” She put away her weapon. “You can go.” “My job’s not over yet. I get to hang around while the Island Star is on display. It arrives by courier tomorrow. I also get to give you pointers.” Her back went up. “I don’t need pointers.”

He begged to differ. “My stealing the ruby necklace says you do.” He held his cuffed hands up before her. Nikki opened the cuffs and removed them. “My stopping your getaway says I don’t.” She pressed her lips together and relented. “Lucky for you, I’m open to suggestions.” He smiled at her as they walked down the hall together. “Lucky for me, I’ve got some pretty good suggestions,” he told her. She had a feeling he wasn’t just talking about the casino’s security system. “I’m sure you do, Simon,” Nikki replied, hooking her arm through his. “I’m sure you do.” THE END

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