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Secrets and Lies
By Selena Montgomery Avon Copyright © 2006 Selena Montgomery
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Chapter One Nighttime suited Sebastian Caine. In the shadows, he could prowl the quiet streets, invisible to the unsuspecting eye. Dakkar or Paris, New York or New Delhi, the nighttime yielded its secrets to him with a delicate sigh.
Or, perhaps, with the muffled shorting of a cross-circuit alarm system.
"Not nearly as poetic, but effective," Sebastian acknowledged, as sparks cascaded to cobblestones where he knelt. He eased the door open, alarms successfully disengaged. Looking down at the now-darkened keypad, a frisson of awareness tightened his skin. Cutting the alarm hadn't been simple, but an incongruity niggled at the back of his mind. Circuit broken-check. Alarm pad disengaged-check. Brass locks picked-check. He'd done this a hundred times before, stealing inside deserted buildings to relieve unsuspecting owners of their possessions. Still, to-night felt different. Unsettled. But, he reminded himself ruefully, standing outside a mark's house was not the place to figure out what bothered him.
Quickly, he slipped inside the doorway that led into a kitchen most chefs fantasized about. Nearly the size of the walk-up he'd lived in as a toddler, Sebastian thought, but much quieter. As he'd planned, nothing sounded beyond the distant lapping of waves. The perfect spot on the Pacific coast for a thief.
Narrow cobbled streets and brightly colored stucco homes had conspired to give him access to his quarry without the requirements of scaled walls or burrowed tunnels. No, to-night's endeavor required little more than a cooperative quarter moon, his personal finesse, and the absence of the homeowner. By the time Senor Felix Estrada returned home from his buying trip to Buenos Aires, Sebastian would be retired and sunning on a tropical beach. Far, far away from the tiny South American nation of Bahia and his pockets full.
With that pleasant image dancing in his head, Sebastian tucked his instruments into a leather bag and switched the palm light on. Swiftly, he moved through the kitchen to the main rooms. He turned the corner and, instantly, Sebastian flicked the light off and flattened himself against a wall.
According to photos he'd studied, Estrada lived in a sprawling mansion filled with carefully tended objets d'art that rivaled many museums. To-night, though, those priceless pieces had been flung aside with malicious hands. The place had been torn apart. Apparently, whoever had preceded Caine cared nothing about discovery. Sebastian scanned the room, alert and ready for ambush.
Suddenly, he understood what had bothered him about the alarm. He'd cut the power, he realized, but he hadn't heard the telltale sound to reveal that the line had been active when he severed the wires. Someone had disarmed the house. Someone who might be still inside.
For an instant, Sebastian considered leaving and telling his client that he'd been too late. He could hop a plane to New York and be in bed by dawn. But two thoughts kept him rooted in place.
Of paramount importance was his payoff for to-night's job. In exchange for delivering a sixteenth-century manuscript known as the Cinchona, Sebastian's client offered $500,000. The client hadn't provided any more detail about Cinchona, and Sebastian hadn't pressed for more. Curiosity in his line of work was not appreciated. Where, when and how much were the necessary particulars. Why did not concern him and could be dangerous. He'd worked for this client too often to delve into queries, and a hundred-thousand-dollar retainer wired to Sebastian's Grand Cayman account easily dampened any natural inquisitiveness.
The part of him that might have cared had been ruthlessly trained against that indulgence because prying didn't pay the bills. If his client was willing to shell out half a million dollars for the plea-sure of owning some ancient papers another man wanted, who was he to argue?
Standing in the shadows, Sebastian acknowledged that annoyance ran a close second to greed. From where he stood, moonlight crested inside the mansion, highlighting his opponent's damage. Paintings leaned drunkenly against silk-covered walls or sprawled on the floors. Gleaming sculptures of twisted metal had been toppled from pedestals. Books-likely first editions-lay jumbled ignominiously on the floor below high mahogany shelves.
"Philistines," he muttered soundlessly. Even thieves could have an appreciation for art.
A slight noise caught his ear, the sound creeping across polished hardwoods. Sebastian pressed deeper into the darkness, his ears tuned. A nearly unheard thud followed the slight bending of wood floors, then silence. He blew out a thin breath. He definitely wasn't alone in the house. But there was only one way to discover who had beaten him there, he decided, peeling away from the wall. Go and find him.
As he slipped into the hallway, Sebastian reached into his leather bag and closed his fingers around the hilt of the knife he carried. The ceremonial dagger had been a present to himself years ago, and he'd so far been able to keep its blade clean. He didn't relish the thought of using the weapon, but he also rejected the notion of dying. Turning the corner, Sebastian peered into the next room and found it empty.
He moved with alacrity through the darkened house, melting into shadows. Adrenaline settled into a steady pulse of blood that belied the danger. Senses heightened for every aberrant sound thrummed as he cased the mansion. He slipped into the dining room, dagger clutched tight in his hand. Suddenly, he heard the skitter of feet and, seconds later, the thud of the kitchen door closing. Sebastian sprinted out of the dining room and toward the rear of the house. He flung open the back door just in time to see a dark form blend into the night. He followed, but by the time he reached the hedges, the thief had disappeared.
"Damnit." The quiet oath emerged as he debated giving chase, but he'd have to guess at whether to go left or right or straight across. He could track him, but the search would take valuable time, and the house . . .
Excerpted from Secrets and Lies by Selena Montgomery Copyright © 2006 by Selena Montgomery. Excerpted by permission.
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