“Please tell me those women aren’t why you’re really in town.”
Sam Steele shifted his gaze from the gorgeous heiresses dining in the corner of the dimly lit Seattle bistro and grinned at his brother. “They’re not why I’m in town.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed. “Right. Now tell me the truth.”
“What?” Sam brandished his most offended tone, hoping not to give away that Jake had nailed his mission. “Can’t I look at a pretty woman?” Pretty hardly did Jennifer Robbins justice. His fingers itched to tug her blond locks free of the tidy bun she’d tamed them into.
“Sure, but I thought you gave up women after that jezebel almost cost you your job.”
Sam gritted his teeth at the reminder of the woman he’d blithely dated for weeks until she’d manipulated him into being late for a rendezvous with a critical informant, who’d later turned up dead, and he’d had to prove he was merely a gullible idiot and not complicit in the plot.
Sam forced his shoulders to relax, sipped his water.
“Still a sore spot, I see.” Jake smirked. “Want me to ask the twins to join us?”
“You know them?” The question came out strangled. Investigating women his brother knew would not go over well with his family, or his boss.
“The heiresses to the Robbins’ Art Gallery?” Jake said in a do-I-look-like-I-was-born-yesterday tone. “Everyone in Seattle knows them.”
Sam leaned forward, holding his brother’s x-ray-vision gaze without so much as a flinch. “They’re not why I’m in town. I’m here to join our parents, you and my adorable nephew Tommy on an Alaskan cruise. Remember?”
Jake studied him a moment longer but thankfully didn’t question Sam’s sudden generosity in surprising them with the cruise tickets. He probably didn’t want to risk being asked to pitch in. Jake drew back his hands, palms out. “Okay, I believe you.”
No, he didn’t. Bringing Jake here tonight had been a mistake. He knew Sam specialized in the FBI’s art crime investigations, so he was bound to be more suspicious than ever when they “ran” into the women on the cruise next week.
Jake glanced over his shoulder again.
This time the twin sister, Cassandra, noticed and offered an inviting smile.
Terrific. Just what Sam didn’t want. Now she’d be suspicious of them on the cruise, too. Could anything else go wrong?
“Wipe that smirk off your face,” Sam ordered. “Mom would kill you if you brought home a girl like that.”
The corner of Jake’s mouth hitched higher. “So I guess that means you’d prefer the more conservative-looking one? Her name’s Jennifer, in case you’re interested.”
Yeah, but Sam didn’t let on that he already knew. He knew more about the pair than Jake could imagine. Like the fact that their parents died in a tragic car accident when the girls were seventeen. That their former guardian, longtime family friend and gallery curator, Reginald Michaels, was their estate trustee until their twenty-fifth birthday. That, although identical twins, the two women couldn’t be more different.
Cassandra wore too much makeup, and flashy designer outfits that revealed more than they concealed. Meanwhile, Jennifer was as buttoned-up as they came in her navy suit and sensible shoes. She didn’t seem to favor the nightclub photo ops like her sister, either. In fact, in the few publicity shots Sam had managed to dig up of the reclusive twin, her gaze held a lost-soul quality that had tugged at something deep inside him.
He shook away the thought. He shouldn’t be noticing a suspect’s ocean blue eyes, except to be able to identify her in a lineup.
“She goes to church,” his brother said, with a hint of amusement. “Has been going for a while.”
“Good to know,” Sam acknowledged, letting Jake have his fun if it meant diverting him from Sam’s true interest in the women. But the backhanded reference to Ms. Jezebel stung. She’d orchestrated their acquaintance at his church, and because she hadn’t seemed to have any affiliation to any of his cases, he’d trusted her far too easily. A mistake he never planned to repeat. “And you know this how?” Sam asked, suddenly curious how Jake happened to know so much about the women who were supposed to be out of their league.
Jake leaned back and took a long draw of his ginger ale before answering. “She goes to the same church as the fire chief.”
Sam steeled himself against a spark of doubt about the woman’s guilt. Jennifer might not work at the gallery like her sister, but as part owner, she’d have some inkling of their illegal dealings. Why else would her computer’s IP address and cell phone have logged as many as six searches of the FBI’s National Stolen Art Information Registry in the past week and a half—the last one while she was in the gallery earlier this evening?
According to the Anchorage office, the tip that a stolen Native American painting had surfaced in a Skagway gallery came from a reliable source. A wiretap on the gallery’s phone had logged several suspicious calls from the Robbins’ Gallery. Two days later, Cassandra and Jennifer were booked on an Alaskan cruise.
Across the bistro, the women asked for their bill.
Sam pushed aside his half-finished dessert. “You done?”
Jake shoveled tiramisu into his mouth and shook his head.
The women stood, and Jake must’ve guessed at Sam’s real reason for asking. Well, hopefully not the real, real reason.
Reginald Michaels’ suspiciously worded conversations with the Skagway gallery had convinced Sam the twins’ roles would be pivotal in smuggling the pieces south. He needed to know for sure.
In his six years on the FBI’s art crime team, Sam had specialized in recovering stolen art, usually by posing as an unscrupulous private collector willing to overlook a masterpiece’s provenance for the opportunity to own it. First, he’d cultivate the seller’s trust, then he’d set up the buy, and a combined team of FBI agents and local law enforcement would have his back. But time hadn’t been on his side in this case.
Jake shoveled in another mouthful then quickly wiped his face. “Okay. I’m good.”
By the time Sam paid the bill, the women had just about made it to their car, which was perfect because Sam could say bye to Jake and quietly tail the pair to their next destination. The late June sun was sinking fast, which would make it easier to follow unobserved.
A scream split the air. One of the twins.
Jake hoofed across the parking lot with Sam on his heels, more than a little uneasy about meeting the twins this way. When he was close enough to see they were unharmed, he slowed and let his brother take the lead. The last thing he needed on this case was more complications.
“Are you two okay?” Jake asked.
The women, clearly shaken, both nodded.
Keeping his distance, Sam rounded behind them, taking in the slashed tires and the smashed driver’s side window of the Ford Focus. An economy car. Another of the heiress’s anomalies.
Jake pulled out his cell phone. “Did you see who did this?”
“No, but—” Jennifer’s voice wobbled as she reached through her shattered car window “—he left this.”
“Don’t touch it!” Moving in quickly to intervene, Sam caught her arm. The sheer panic in her eyes sliced off his breath. That and the ivory-handled knife pinning a torn note to the driver’s seat headrest. On the paper, blood-red letters said You’ll pay.
A chill skittered down his neck. Oh, this was a big complication.
“Let go of me.” Jennifer tried to jerk free of the man who’d appeared out of nowhere in the secluded parking lot. But he held her arm fast while Cassandra just stood and stared.
“Hold still. You’re bleeding.” The man pressed a tissue against her palm.
“What?” Jen glanced down at his hand holding hers so determinedly. Oh. He meant to help her. Heat rushed to her cheeks as she stopped resisting.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said in a rumbly voice that soothed her frayed nerves. “The police might be able to get fingerprints off the knife and note.”
“Of course, I wasn’t thinking.” All she’d been thinking about was the Duel After The Masked Ball painting she’d spotted squirreled away in the gallery’s back room tonight.
She tamped down her panic at the sight of the knife and the thought that it must be connected to the painting. A painting of a stabbing.
She shuddered at the memory of the image. She hadn’t wanted to believe Uncle Reginald could be mixed up in anything illegal. She’d actually convinced herself that the person who’d told her as much—the man she hoped to soon sell her share of the gallery to—was just trying to scare her out of soliciting other offers. But then she’d spotted the Duel painting where it shouldn’t have been.
It wasn’t wildly valuable by art standards, but it was listed as stolen on the FBI’s online database.
And for all she knew this threat could be some kind of revenge.
Her rescuer squeezed her hand, mercifully disrupting her spiraling suspicions. He had a bump on his nose like maybe it had once been broken. His sandy-brown hair curled over his ears, grazing his collar, and his three-day beard growth made him look like a rugged cowboy, except for the sports jacket. He searched her face. “Or do you already know who did this?”
At the apprehension shadowing his coffee-brown eyes, butterflies fluttered through her stomach. “I—”
“It’s got to be one of those nutcase grant applicants!” her sister shrieked. “She assesses them for a charitable foundation. They’re always threatening her when she turns down their applications.” Cassandra waved her arms at Jennifer. “Tell them.”
“Calm down.” Jen fought to keep her tone low and even. “These gentlemen don’t need to know that.”
“Do you see the size of that knife?” Cassandra wailed, louder than before, thrusting her finger at it. “The guy’s a whack job!” Her gaze darted to the bushes that edged the parking lot, and she finally lowered her voice. “For all we know, if these guys hadn’t shown up, the creep might’ve jumped us, too.”
Jennifer shivered. Maybe her sister was right. Maybe this didn’t have anything to do with Reginald or the painting. When she broke the news to Lester this morning that his proposal hadn’t met the foundation’s grant qualifications, he’d been irate.
But he had to know that this was no way to change her mind. Threats like this would only land him in jail.
Her rescuer’s grip tightened, drawing her from her thoughts, and she realized he was trying to still her trembling.
“If someone has threatened you, you need to tell the police when they arrive,” he said, although he looked as though he wanted to press for those details himself.
Her gaze skittered from the endearing concern in his eyes to the small frown curving his lips. She swallowed, not sure what had her feeling more off kilter, the note in her car or the man comforting her. She slipped her hand free of his hold. “Yes, thank you. I’ll do that.”
Turning away, she winced at the curious gazes of people spilling out of the restaurant. She hated being the center of attention at the best of times. If the press caught wind of this, they’d be haunting her for weeks.
The man must’ve noticed her distress because he immediately motioned them to move on. “Everything’s okay, folks. Nothing to see here.” The other man positioned himself in front of her car door, effectively blocking the view of the knife.
A few people craned their necks for a better look but then wandered off like the others.
“Thank you, Mr….” Jennifer whispered. “I’m sorry. I don’t even know your name.”
“Sam. Sam Tate.” He motioned to the tall, lanky fellow guarding the car door. “And this is my brother, Jake. He’s with the Stalwart Fire Department north of the city.”
Jake dipped his head toward her. “Ma’am.”
She could see the family resemblance in their faces, especially the kindness in their eyes, but other than that, they seemed as different in appearance as she and her sister were in personalities. “Pleased to meet you both. I’m Jennifer Robbins, and this is my sister, Cassandra.”
“What’s taking the police so long?” Cassie fretted. “It’s going to be dark soon.” She wrapped her arms around her middle and flitted her long lashes at the tall fireman. “You’ll stay until they come. Won’t you?”
Jake grinned. “Be happy to.”
His brother didn’t seem in a hurry to leave either. He crouched down and studied the slashed tires as Jennifer silently thanked God for bringing these two good Samaritans in their time of need.
Cassie paced. “What if this guy knows where you live, Jen? If only we were leaving on the cruise tomorrow. Then he wouldn’t be able to find you.”
“You’re going on a cruise?” Jake asked. “Which one?”
“Alaskan. We’re supposed to leave Monday.” Jen frowned at the note’s sinister threat. She hadn’t agreed to go yet, but maybe getting out of town for a week would be a good thing.
“Alaska? No way.” Awe filled Jake’s voice. “Us too. What are the chances?” He turned to Sam, eyebrow arched.
“The trip is a birthday gift from our uncle.” Cassie flashed a photo-worthy grin. “We’re twins.”
“Cool. We’re celebrating our folks’ fortieth wedding anniversary.” Jake hitched his thumb toward his brother. “Sam’s treat.”
A wealthy cowboy then? And generous. Not that Jen cared about a man’s wealth. She just wasn’t interested in any guy who only cared about hers. Which seemed to be every guy who gave her a second look. Maybe the rest were too intimidated by her bigger bank account. Too bad Ian hadn’t been. He’d done his homework so well that she’d gullibly believed he wanted the private family life she craved. Right up until Uncle Reggie presented him with an ironclad prenuptial agreement to sign.
Cassie tugged on Jen’s sleeve. “See Jen, the cruise won’t be just partiers. You have to come with me.”
Sam turned to her, looking surprised. “You’re thinking of turning down an Alaskan cruise?”
Jen shrugged. Maybe going away for a week would stop whoever did this from bothering her again. Except she couldn’t shake the niggling feeling Uncle Reggie wanted her out of Seattle for a reason.
Like maybe he’d heard that she’d secretly found a buyer for the gallery come their twenty-fifth birthday…when he lost his veto power.
She’d wanted out from the day her parents died driving home from a gallery gala. And the desire had only intensified with every gold-digging suitor who’d knocked on her door since. Uncle Reggie had to know she’d act on it.
She sucked in a breath. Two weeks. And she still had to win Cassie’s agreement to sell her half, too, for the deal to work. Which wouldn’t be easy considering Cass had worked at the gallery since high school and loved everything about it. The last thing Jen wanted to do was take that away from her. But finding that stolen painting tonight, and now this, changed everything.
She’d already lost her parents and scarcely saw Aunt Martha since she’d divorced Reg. Cass was the only family she had left. She couldn’t bear to lose her too. And she could, because if the deal fell through, it was only a matter of time before the police caught wind of what Reg was up to. And Cass would be implicated alongside him. Perhaps getting her away from him and the gallery for ten whole days might make it easier to win her over.
The wail of a police siren drew closer.
She sure wouldn’t have another opportunity tonight to broach the subject.
Sam studied her, his head tilted, as if he couldn’t figure out why anyone would turn down the gift of a cruise.
She chewed on her bottom lip.
If she went and won her sister’s agreement, she’d still have two days to finalize the sale once they returned before the buyer’s deadline expired. And she couldn’t let it expire. Not now that she knew his warning wasn’t just a scare tactic.