Theirs to cherish, p.39
Theirs to Cherish, p.39Part #8 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
“Did you overhear him give his name or rank or branch of service?”
“No, he didn’t say any of that. He told people that he was meeting his girlfriend, but that she hadn’t come off the flight. A few people remembered seeing me get on, so he knew I’d been on the plane. He had old ladies searching the bathroom. When some dude headed for the smoking lounge, I slipped out with my bag and caught a cab. You know the rest. ”
“And you’ve never seen that uniform before?” Thorpe asked.
Callie paused, scanning her memory. “No, I think I have. But it seems like it’s been forever ago. I just can’t place it. ”
Now that she remembered it, she flipped back through memories, years, locations. Not since she’d arrived at Dominion. Not while she’d been running before then. At home. With her father.
“Wait! A man came. ” Her heart pounded. “To our house. Not long before the murders. ” The memory sharpened, coming into clear focus. “An older man—not like the young guy from the airport. But I think they wore the same uniform. My father took him into his office. They argued. I remember it because Dad almost never raised his voice. He did that day. When I asked him about it later, he just said the man was pressing for a political donation and didn’t want to take no for an answer. I let it go. ”
Sean frowned. “Did you ever see the older man in the uniform again?”
“No. My father was largely a recluse. He met with very few people, especially at the house. When I was a kid, the only person who came over with any regularity was some sort of medical researcher, Doctor . . . Aslanov, I think. ” Callie frowned. “But he stopped coming around when I was ten or so. ”
Sean searched around for a piece of paper and jotted some notes. “Yes, I know who he is. Doctor Aslanov researched cancer. I know your father funded quite a bit of his work for about five years. ”
“Yeah. Like he thought it would bring my mother back. ”
Thorpe came closer then and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sorry, pet. ”
About her mother? Yes, she was, too. He seemed very sorry about Holden and Charlotte, as well. They both did. She drew in their sweet empathy.
Callie softened in his arms, and Sean joined them. They cocooned her in warmth and acceptance. Love. She kissed them each briefly, then backed away. They still had work to do.
“I think it’s fair to say that the man who came to your house in uniform didn’t drop in on your dad for a political donation,” Sean said. “Any guesses about why he was really there?”
“None. I didn’t get involved in Dad’s stuff. I was a typical teenager, too wrapped up in my own. ”
“So . . . if we don’t know who visited your house in uniform and we don’t know what he wanted, let’s talk about what the police found at the crime scene after the murders. ”
“You said my home was ransacked?” Callie frowned and wrapped her arms around herself. “I remember that big, gorgeous house like it was yesterday. Double grand staircases with white marble, wrought iron railings, and so much natural light. The house always seemed so . . . pristine. It was a reflection of my mother, and Dad never changed it. I can’t imagine it torn apart. ”
“I saw the pictures,” Sean said softly. “They didn’t have a lot of time in the house before the police arrived, but they searched in every nook and cranny, every drawer, closet, and niche. ”
That shocked Callie. “They had to have worked fast in over sixteen thousand square feet. ”
“Sounds like they knew the layout of the house,” Thorpe surmised.
She shrugged. “It was public record. Architectural Digest had done a spread on the house about a year prior. It showed the floor plan. ”
Sean sighed. “I’m looking for logic. Why would anyone come in, kill the occupants of the house, then tear it apart to take one item?”
“I don’t think anything had been stolen. What did they actually take?” She searched her memory for all the treasures her father had in his possession. As a man who’d come from enormous wealth and had a talent for growing it, he’d had some priceless treasures. But if the killers hadn’t taken any of the art or the cash, what had they sought?
“An Imperial Fabergé egg. It’s worth about . . . eighteen million dollars, give or take a few pennies. I can’t imagine someone stealing it for profit, but we’ve never seen the egg for sale, even in the most illegal channels. It doesn’t seem likely that hardened criminals would break in and kill simply to decorate their mantel. ”
Callie flushed. “They didn’t take it. I did. It’s in my backpack. My backpack! Where is it? I left it in my hotel room in Vegas and—”
“We brought it with us, lovely. Take a breath. Relax,” Sean advised. “Why did you take the egg?”
“It was my mother’s. It was all I had of her. ”
“It’s rare and incredibly expensive. You’ve been carting it around for nine years while living in slums?”
She sighed. “I know. But it’s not like I could have rented a safe-deposit box or anything. My consolation was that if anyone ever thought about swiping it, in those neighborhoods, they probably wouldn’t have had a clue what it was. After all, it’s one of only about six dozen to survive the Bolshevik Revolution. ”
Thorpe’s eyes widened. “You had that egg in my club for four years?”
Callie nodded. “It was kind of a relief. No one was going to steal it from there. They didn’t dare come in my room or you would remove their heads from their bodies in the most unpleasant way possible. ”
“That’s true,” Thorpe concurred, smiling as if pleased with himself.
It was . . . cute.
“I never imagined you took that egg,” Sean admitted. “One way the bureau tracked you was your pattern of leaving everything behind. You were reported as a missing person about a half a dozen times, so we got to know your MO. You never took personal mementos when you moved from one location to another. ”
“Well, my father had so many of my mother’s photos locked away, as if he couldn’t look at them without grieving all over again. But Mom told me just before she died that the egg was mine. I probably should have left it behind, but I couldn’t. ”
“Is there any chance that whoever killed your family wanted that egg?” Sean wondered aloud.
“I don’t know why they would. It’s valuable, but if they didn’t want art or money, why go after a relic? For me, it was just sentimental. That egg was her pride and joy. ”
“They open up. Could there be something inside it?” Sean asked.
“I don’t know. ” She shrugged. “I’ve tried to pry it open repeatedly. I even took a screwdriver to it once and got two stitches and a tetanus shot for my trouble. It’s stuck. ”
Sean gripped his chin and let out a breath. “There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. We’re onto something. It’s right here. I can’t quite figure it out yet. Why don’t we have some brunch? I’ll grab a shower. After that, we’ll hunker down and think some more. ”
“Good call. ” Thorpe glanced around the galley. “I hope cereal is okay. You know Callie and I don’t cook. ”
“For shit’s sake, I’m sending you two to cooking school when we get out of this mess. ”
“Sounds fun. I’ve always wanted to learn. ” Callie smiled, then turned to Thorpe.
“Don’t count me in,” he snapped. “I’m fine just the way I am. ”
Meaning he didn’t want to see her after the danger had passed? She looked away, biting her lip.
An awkward silence prevailed, and Sean sent her a sympathetic glance. Maybe she should just try to put the brakes on feeling anything for Thorpe, accept that he mostly wanted sex from her, and stop hoping for more. If Thorpe didn’t need her, then she’d do her best not to need him.
Callie opened her mouth to say she’d try to cook breakfast and invite Thorpe to jump into the lake, but a phone rang. The guys both looked at one another. It could only mean trouble. Their expressions
Then Thorpe took off running for the bedroom, following the sound of the ring. Sean followed like it was a footrace. Callie trailed after them, hating the icy slide of dread in her veins.
“Axel?” Thorpe shouted into the cheap plastic phone.
A pause, followed by a grunted acknowledgment. Then a much longer pause. Then shock transformed Thorpe’s face.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he barked into the phone.
Axel answered in a way that only made Thorpe more angry. His cheeks flamed red. He clenched his fists and looked like he might grind his teeth into dust. Holy hell, she’d never seen Thorpe that pissed off.
“Keep me posted. ” He stabbed a finger at the keypad to end the call, then looked up at Sean with a bleak stare.
“What?” Sean barked as he wrapped an arm around her, already trying to brace her for the news he expected would upset her.
“In the middle of the night, someone broke into Dominion. They trashed Callie’s room and my office. Axel had a hunch, so he drove by your apartment. Searched and destroyed, too. Whoever has been after you, Callie, knows we’re all gone. They’re looking for something, probably whatever they didn’t find when they killed your family. Now they’re coming for us. ”
AN hour later, Sean retrieved her backpack from the stash in the bedroom. Gently, he shoved the remnants of cereal and toast to one side, then set her ragged bag on the little table and took a deep breath. Beside him, Callie looked tense and scared.
“What is it, lovely?”
“Aren’t we sitting ducks here on the lake? We should abandon the houseboat and get far away from here. ”
“Medieval lords built castles using bodies of water as part of their defense. It would be difficult to mount an attack on the water and even harder to sneak up on us. We’re hidden by boulders and mountains. No one is likely to find us without a helicopter, and even then, we’ll just look like a boat on the lake. ”
“But they still might investigate it. In the past, when I’ve had someone breathing down my neck, I would change locations every day or two until I felt sure that I’d lost whoever was chasing me. ”
“You haven’t done anything criminal, and I don’t want you running like you are one anymore. ”
“Guilt or lack thereof has nothing to do with it,” she insisted with a wave of her hand. “Whoever is after us will hunt us down. I think we should get off the boat and leave everyone guessing by going in three separate directions—”
“No!” he and Thorpe both barked together.
Sean turned his gaze to the other man. Thorpe’s jaw clenched firm and resolute. He might not think he wanted to commit to Callie yet, but he’d fight to keep her safe. He’d even die for that cause. Because he loved her. The big lug was just too stubborn to do anything about it. At least right now. Time would tell . . .
Sean pushed the thought aside. Not the most important problem at the moment.
Except that if Thorpe broke Callie’s heart, Sean knew he’d have to work even harder to heal her. She would cry and believe that she wasn’t . . . something enough. Good, smart, pretty—whatever adjective filled in the blank and made no sense. Callie ticked all of those boxes for Sean, and if Thorpe’s pig-headed avoidance made her feel like she lacked any of those qualities, Sean would take pleasure in beating the hell out of him. Kind of a downer, really. He’d started to actually like the guy.
“Maybe this egg has something to do with your family’s murder. ” Sean changed the subject. “Let’s focus on that and not make any other decisions until we inspect it. Maybe there’s something special about it besides the obvious. ”
“Agreed. ” Thorpe nodded.
Callie pursed her lips, then looked away with a sigh. “We have to pull our heads out of our asses. Let’s examine the egg once we get off this floating dead end. We’re wasting time, guys. ”
He and Thorpe exchanged a glance, then the other man reached across the table to tangle his hand in her dark hair. “If we didn’t have more important tasks at hand, I’d devise a fitting punishment for you, pet. ”
She pursed her lips. “For expressing an opinion?”
“For expressing it so disrespectfully. ”
Exasperation crossed her face before she stuck out her tongue at him. The gesture was somewhere between playful and impertinent, and Sean bit back a chuckle. No one could ever accuse Callie of being boring or predictable.
Thorpe tugged harder on her hair. “So you want to do this right now? I can occupy your tongue if you can’t keep it in your mouth. ”
“Oh, I’ll bet you can. ” She licked her lips. “Ready when you are. ”
Theirs to Cherish by Shayla Black / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on48 votes