Tuesday, April 14, 2015

VANISHED IN VENICE, Italy Intrigue Series - 3




     One year after being shot in Italy, Rachel Sanders returns in search of the jeweled cross that triggered a heartbreaking family betrayal. Determined to keep the treasure from her mother’s greedy hands, she’s caught off guard by the interference of an irresistibly charming rival. His unexpected offer to help might be self serving, but she’s thrown into a precarious situation where she can’t refuse...and finds she doesn’t want to anyway.
     Nick Marshall has a family legacy to recover and a score to settle. Anyone with the last name Sanders is fair game—until he meets Rachel. She’s gorgeous, smart, sexy, and doesn’t buy one word of his cover story. When their attraction combusts, each kiss makes his deception burn like acid, and he begins to question his end goal.
     But they’re not the only ones after the cross. Ruthless players willing to do anything to recover the treasure first put Nick and Rachel’s lives on the line. Despite all the secrets and lies, lines quickly blur between the con and the real deal. Can love survive a double-cross when the mystery is unlocked?

EXCERPT:


     She straightened her spine for a quick stretch left and right with her arms over her head, just like when she spent hours hunched over her jewelry design table at home in Wisconsin.
     Back cracked and muscles slightly relieved, she returned to work. With the next turn of the page, her heart nearly stopped. There, on the right hand side, taking up half of the page, was an illuminated illustration of a gold cross encrusted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. On the left was a full page illustration of a priest and a knight standing in front of a large, multi-domed church. A cross was being passed between the two of them.
     The cross.
     Who was giving and who was receiving was not clear in the picture, but at the end of the bedtime story her father used to tell her as a little girl, the priest presented the jeweled piece to a mighty Italian knight for his brave defense of a grand church during an attack by the Imperial Forces hundreds of years ago.
     Yes, that’s how she grew up—bedtime stories of armies and sieges, knights and princesses, kingdoms and fortunes won and lost. As a kid, she’d loved the fantasy and romance of her father’s tales. All grown up, they were just pleasant memories to offset some of the harsher elements of her childhood.
     She skimmed the faded text beneath the picture of the cross and continued to the next page. Using her phone translation app, she determined prete meant priest. Best she could translate, his name was Santo. Father Santo—did they call priests ‘father’ back then? Maybe not—probably not in Italian. Padre Santo would work, but the text was too faded to be sure. She’d have to ask Gianna on that one.
     Moving on, she searched for any reference to a knight, cavaliere, but couldn’t find anything. There was another name, though, Alessandro Foscari dell'esercito Veneziano. Her app converted that to Alessandro Foscari of the Venetian Army, and she wondered if he was the knight from her father’s story.
     Much of the rest of the text was faded, or the bits of translation she tried didn’t make sense. Maybe Gianna could help her locate a city, or the name of the church here in Venice where the exchange might have taken place. They might have archives documenting what had happened to the cross.
     She turned the page back to the images. Names and translations she’d jotted in her notebook swam in her mind. Suddenly, she stilled as full reality sank in, that the puzzle pieces in front of her had fit together to match her father’s story.
     It’s actually real.
     It shouldn’t surprise her after the letters he’d sent full of codes, and his serious request to stay out of it…and yet it did. Even more unexpected, the confirmation of his fairytale about the jewel encrusted cross that had vanished in Venice so long ago did more than pique her curiosity. She felt a pull she couldn’t even begin to describe as she stared at the page.
     Her mother had betrayed them all for this. Not even the cross itself really, but more the idea of it. The promise.
     Maybe if she could find the actual cross, hold it in her hands, she might be able to understand why her mother made the choice she had.
     Swallowing past a sudden lump in her throat, Rachel ran white-gloved fingertips over the right page illustration, ever-so-slightly tracing the golden lines of the jeweled cross. Entranced, she imagined the time and dedication that went into creating something so intricate and detailed.
     The hair on the back of her neck tingled as if a mystical force had been released. A light tickle of warm air brushed across her skin, right where her shoulder met her neck. The eerie sensation sent a shiver down her spine.
     Apprehension, or anticipation?
     “Beautiful.”
     The low voice at her ear made her startle with a shriek of surprise. Her whole-body sideways jerk bumped the table, knocking the reading lamp askew.
     Nick Marshall reached past her to straighten the lamp shade as the echo of her cry died in the cavernous room. Then he turned and propped one hip on the edge of the table, an infuriating smirk curving his lips. Others at nearby tables who’d cast her annoyed glances for the interruption returned to their reading.
     She slumped back in her chair, hand pressed over her still-racing heart. “Stop sneaking up on me like that.”
     “I can’t help it if you were too busy drooling over that cross to notice my arrival.”
     She glared at him as she realized what he’d seen. Of course, she knew he hadn’t bought her denials, but him being proven correct so quickly still sucked.
     “I wasn’t drooling,” she snapped, careful to keep her voice down. “And what the hell are you doing here?”
     Hands linked together to rest on his thigh, he swung his leg back and forth. “I wanted to see if you’d changed your mind yet.”
     “I haven’t. Now go away.”
     Gianna arrived at the table in a rush. The librarian’s concerned expression filled with distress at Rachel’s words to Nick. “I apologize, Ms. Sanders. He said he was with you. I will call security immediately.”
     She whirled around in her sensible yet stylish leather heels and started back to her desk, her long, dark hair swishing against her back. Rachel wanted to growl at Nick in frustration. She also wanted answers. Since she couldn’t make him unsee what he’d already seen, she called quietly, “Gianna, no. Don’t call anyone. He just surprised me, that’s all.”
     The woman turned back, her brown gaze shifting back and forth between the two of them. Nick spoke in her native tongue, offering a disarming grin. By the time he finished, the pretty young woman responded with a tentative smile before turning to Rachel.
     “If you are sure?”
     Forget growling. She’d rather scream. Again—at the man who’d caused all the commotion in the first place.
     Jaw clenched, smile forced, she assured Gianna, “Yes, I’m sure. Grazie.”
     Nick received another smile from the Italian, then she continued her retreat. Rachel watched him watch the curvy figure and lost her patience. She shoved against his leg with her right hand. “Get your ass off the table—you’ll ruin the book.”
     “I’m not anywhere near the book.”
     “It’s still rude. You’re not as charming as you think.”
     He flicked that green gaze toward Gianna, and his lips tugged upward again. “Just enough when needed.” Smile still in place, he shifted his gaze back to her. “Now, what were you saying earlier at the café? Something about not searching for a cross?”
     She deliberately ignored his sarcasm and gave his muscled, jean-clad thigh another smack. “Off.”
     He used the toe of his boot to push the neighboring chair out, then slid off the table and spun to drop into the seat in one smooth motion.
     The guy had some explaining to do.
     Rachel glanced around to see how many people were around to overhear if she had to get insistent. Crap. Enough that she’d have to keep her voice down. As if to mock her, her stomach grumbled in the quiet.
“Should’ve eaten your breakfast,” Nick commented, sitting forward to reach for the book. “They were good.”
     She grabbed his hand mid-reach. “Not without gloves.”
     He stopped, his whole body going still. She felt the strength in his hand, noticed the difference in size between them, the tan of his skin against the stark-white of her gloved fingers. For a second, she met his gaze, then they each pulled away.
     Rachel drew in as discreet a breath as possible. The guy was not charming, but he had an effect on her that was difficult to ignore. It was even worse with that sexy five-o’clock shadow, and the wavy, windblown locks on his forehead, making him look all rugged and manly. Add in the occasional hint of his ocean-breeze scent and she was losing it fast.
     Pulling herself together, she gently slid the book to the side farthest away from him. When she turned back, he’d switched to reading her notes, so she reached to flip her notebook over. The loud slap echoed, and she fought a grimace at the noise.
     “Santo means saint,” he said. “Was there a name to go with that?”
     “No.” She frowned because she thought it was a name. In the next instant, she turned to face him with determination. “But we are not talking about that. How did you know where I was? I made sure you didn’t follow me.”
     Alarm flashed across his expression. His gaze searched hers for a tense moment, then he visibly relaxed and shrugged his shoulders. “You seem like a smart girl. I figured the library would be your next logical step in the search, so I gave it a try, and here you are.”
     She almost laughed, but was way more annoyed than amused. “Do women really fall for the bullshit you feed them?”
     “Yes.” He grinned, completely unapologetic.
     Do not notice how the color of his T-shirt compliments the color of his eyes.
     She turned up her nose. “Well, I am a smart girl, and it’s insulting. Try again.”
     “Okay, fine,” he huffed with an exaggerated sigh. “Being the creepy stalker I am, I put a tiny little tracking device in your bag so I could follow you. Is that more believable?”
     “Actually, yes. Thank you.” He probably meant it to sound so outlandish she wouldn’t believe him, but she was going to find the damn thing the moment she pulled her bag out of the locker. “Next question, who are you working with?”
     Her careful watch caught the subtle tightening of his muscles as his tension returned.
     “What makes you think I’m not in this for myself?” He reached to casually flip her pencil into a spin on top of the wooden table.
     “Oh, I don’t doubt you’re in it for yourself, but I know someone sent you after my father’s letters because you couldn’t have known about them yourself.”
     “Your brother—”
     She reached forward and slapped her hand on top of the pencil to stop the irritating sound. He raised his eyebrows, and she had to avoid taking too deep a breath. “My brother didn’t know about the letters Dad sent until after his whole thing with you in Rome was over.”
     “You sure about that?”
     “Yes.” But she wasn’t one hundred percent. She and Ben had talked on the phone in the middle of his crazy journey from Milan to Rome, just before he made her promise to go stay with Halli and Trent in California until he returned to the States. They had talked about Dad’s codes, but she honestly couldn’t remember if the letters came up. Had he been surprised when she first mentioned them during their talk at the villa?
     Then she realized if he had been, it didn’t matter. Even if she’d mentioned them to Ben before that, there’s no way he would have told Nick.
     She tried a different tactic. “Tell me who you’re working for and I’ll consider your offer.”
     “You’re already considering it, so I’m not really getting anything out of that deal.”
     “That’s how it works with you? You only give if you get?”
     “Not in everything.” He paused just long enough, then lifted his gaze to hers. “But in this, yes.”
     Heat flooded through her at where her mind went for the first half of his low, suggestive statement. His cocky grin told her he knew exactly what she was thinking. Damn.
     She stood and gathered her notebook and pencil, then reached for the book to return to Gianna.
     Nick reclined back in his chair. “Have dinner with me tonight, and I’ll answer your questions.”
     Dinner with him? She let her gaze skim the long, lean body sprawled out before her, and pictured the restaurant she’d eaten at last night. Wine, candlelight, romantic Italian music.
     Hell no.
     Hugging her notebook to her chest, she faced him and leaned her hip against the table. “Just dinner?”
     It wasn’t like she would actually go, but she couldn’t fake-agree too fast, either.
     He sat up, then stood, a mere two feet away. Then one. His hand rose to slide along her bare arm in a warm, sensual caress. “Unless you want more?”
     Oh, God.
     Heat exploded so frickin’ fast she could barely breathe. She should move away, but right then, the table was helping her keep her balance. Besides, he’d already been proven right about the cross. No way was she going to feed his unbearable ego by falling for his pseudo-charm.
     Resisting the urge to fan her burning cheeks with her notebook, she managed a reasonably cool-sounding, “Dinner is fine. Or lunch. As you know, I haven’t eaten yet.”
     The hint of triumph in his smile reiterated this was all a game to him. “You can’t handle dinner with me?”
     “I can handle it just fine.”
     “Good. Then dinner it is.” His hand still skimmed upward. “I’ll pick you up at your place at seven-thirty.”
     “Fine.” She pretended like his touch wasn’t setting off all kinds of alarm bells in her head. “And now that that’s settled, tell me who you’re working for.”
     His forearm rested on her shoulder, while his fingers cupped the nape of her neck, and his thumb rubbed small circles over the sensitive skin right beneath her ear. “Nice try, Rach, but I’m a smart guy, too. You’ll get yours after I get mine.”
     First time he said her name, and he used the shortened version as if they’d known each other for years. The implied intimacy did things to her insides, not to mention, his low, sensual voice was making her stomach bottom out again. His hold on the back of her neck tightened, and he leaned in. Adrenaline surged at the thought that he was going to kiss her right there in the library. She made no move to stop him.
     Instead, his lips brushed her ear and his bristled jaw scraped her cheek ever so lightly. “It’s up to you to decide how bad you want it.”
     She swallowed hard, her breath agonizingly shallow. What little air she managed was filled with his scent. “Maybe I don’t really want it.”
     “You do, or you wouldn’t still be standing here.”
     Shit. Were they even still talking about dinner? Things were fast moving out of her depth—because part of her was tempted to forget everything she knew about the thieving deceiver and turn until his mouth met hers.
     His other hand came up to cup her cheek. He turned her head for her, until his face filled her vision.

~~~

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Thank you, and happy reading. 

~Stacey~




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