“From Venice to Vegas, Susan Vaughan builds edge of the seat suspense… If you like sexy heroes, strong heroines and an action-packed adventure, you’ll love this third book in Susan Vaughan’s Devlin Security Force series. Highly Recommended!” – Linda Style, award-winning author of DETROIT RULES
5 Stars on Amazon: “…fast-paced adventure/romance novel along the same model as Krentz, Lowell, and Johanson.”
A stolen necklace – When DSF boss Thomas Devlin’s old flame is pursued by the same thugs who stole the Queen of the Nile’s priceless necklace from under his company’s nose, he drops everything and jets to Venice to protect her. He’s desperate to recover the necklace from the smuggling ring Centaur and restore his company’s reputation, but he runs into more trouble than he can handle in the arms of the woman he can’t forget.
A woman in danger – Impetuous artist Cleo Chandler’s involvement with the forger who copied Cleopatra’s necklace sends her on the run because the thugs who killed him believe she knows the location of the jewelry. When Thomas bursts back into her life promising protection, she knows he’ll safeguard her life, but will this take-charge man crush her love again?
A dangerous quest – From Venice to the U.S., as Thomas and Cleo race against time and the smugglers, they learn that something much greater is at stake than their lives and recovering the precious antiquity. As the peril escalates, so does the risk to their hearts.
Research Picture Gallery
A cruise including Venice was part of the research for the book. Left - the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge. Middle - From a water taxi, a crowded canal with work boats like the boat escape scene. Right - Susan at Piazza San Marko.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Crystal City, Virginia - August
THE BEARDED ASSASSIN lunged at his chest with a long-bladed knife.
Fighting a larger, equally skilled enemy meant Thomas had to move faster, fight smarter, dirtier. If he timed his move right, the assassin would be off balance. If not, he was finished. The smell of sweat hung in the air. Droplets slid down his back and off his chin
His gaze flicked from the assassin’s eyes to the blade and back again.
He exploded to the right. The blade pierced the air instead of his chest. Before the assassin could turn and refocus his attack, Thomas grasped the attacking hand with both hands. Pinned it in the crook of one arm.
He was about to pivot and take down the attacker but the man swung a leg and tripped him. Both went down. They rolled together like a roast on a spit. He landed on his back, the assassin on top. Shit.
The assassin brought the knife to his throat.
“Not as fast as you used to be, Captain. If this wasn’t a rubber knife, you’d be a fucking dead man.”
Thomas Devlin smiled. “Not quite, Sergeant.”
A similar rubber knife in Thomas’s fist pricked Lucas Del Rio’s T-shirt at navel level.
Eyes so dark they looked black gleamed with sudden humor. Lucas barked a laugh and rolled backward onto the gym mat. “You’d have gutted me before I could reach your throat. Not bad for an old man.”
Thomas sat up, fought to keep his breathing even and not suck in much needed oxygen. No way would he acknowledge he was winded to his more powerfully built sparring partner. The owner of Devlin Security Force had to maintain mastery in more ways than one, not unlike in his old Delta Force team.
Drawing on the small reserve of energy he had left after their two hour session, he vaulted to his feet and held out a hand for his former NCO. “Thirty-eight’s old only on the basketball court. Just means I have to be smarter than my opponent.”
“No argument here.” Lucas peeled off his safety goggles. “I hate wearing these wussy things.”
Thomas smiled. DSF enforced safety rules. “Right. A slip of a rubber blade can puncture an eyeball like stabbing a grape. And then I’d be out a good operative.”
Lucas winced but offered no further argument.
They crossed the company gym to the towel rack outside the locker rooms. Thomas dumped his safety goggles and grabbed a towel. Time to level. He’d delayed bringing up the new assignment until his field operative was too tired to raise much objection. Which he would. Thomas preferred he take the job willingly rather than under orders.
Lucas sat down heavily, apparently as tuckered as his boss. Good. Thomas plucked water bottles from the mini-fridge before sinking onto the bench, taking care to sit on the right side. His former sergeant wouldn’t have worn his hearing aid during a bout.
Lucas chugged most of his water, then scrubbed a towel over his head, shoving his dark hair into devilish spikes. He angled his head, expectation in his eyes. “Whatever my new gig is, it must be bad if you put off mentioning it until I’m whipped.”
Thomas grinned. The perception and analytical intelligence that had made Lucas essential in war also made him a valuable operative. “Should’ve known I couldn’t put one over on you. Exactly why I need you. A multi-agency task force is going after Centaur.”
Lucas’s black eyes widened at the mention of Centaur, a criminal syndicate involved in stealing and copying valuable art and artifacts. He shook his head. “I’m no desk jockey. Coat and tie? Forget it. Send Rivera.”
“No can do. Max has a broken leg. I have yet to drag out of him how he did it.”
Lucas’s laugh had an evil tone. “Probably tripped over one of his wedding gifts.”
“If that’s the case, he’s sworn Kate to secrecy or she doesn’t know.” He rose and tossed the damp towel into the laundry bin. “I’m going to grab a shower. Meet me in my office in twenty.”
When Lucas joined him, Thomas led the way to two club chairs overlooking the busy Crystal City street far below. He pulled his chair around to face his operative. Ice clinked in the strained silence as he poured tea into tall glasses. Maybe his personal blend of sweet tea would ease the wariness in the set of Lucas’s shoulders.
Lucas said nothing as he downed his icy drink, so Thomas picked up the recruitment pitch where he’d left off.
“Centaur’s theft of the Cleopatra necklace a month ago in Paris made us look like amateurs. I want that choker retrieved. I want Centaur stopped. Dismantled. Destroyed. And I want one of my people in on the kill. You.”
“Centaur’s been plaguing us for a few years. Why a task force now?”
Lucas would find out soon enough once he signed on. “Centaur’s been gaining power and influence, gathering a network of thieves and brokers to handle their stolen loot. First it was selling originals to underground collectors. Next it was selling copies, like that Han Dynasty horse you’ve been chasing for two years.”
“Copies of that and more are quadrupling their profit. I heard some of their art forgers never resurface after working for Centaur.”
“Loose ends. Informants have told my Interpol contact the heist of Cleopatra artifacts was contracted by Ahmad Yousef.”
Lucas’s brows winged upward. “That fanatic?”
“Right. And no art collector. My sources say he’s preparing major terrorist attacks in the West. I can’t begin to guess what part the necklace plays in his plot, but you can see why the Brits and the U.S. have signed on to stop this escalation.”
“I get why you want a Devlin Security Force operative on the task force but why do they want a DSF operative, a civilian? Why not a Feeb?” Lucas’s broad brow crimped.
Oh yeah, Thomas had him hooked now. He contained a grin. “The Centaur Task Force consists of Interpol, the FBI, and Scotland Yard, among others. Must be some interesting politics going on in Interpol because the CTF head isn’t French, but a tough FBI agent. DSF has worked for Interpol before, some on, some off-the-books ops. You won’t be an office wonk. They need an investigator who’s not a Fed. An investigator who can operate without portfolio.”
“Hell. I was going to shave the beard anyway. My landlady says I look so much like a bear I scare her poodle.”
“I agree the beard would make you conspicuous,” Thomas said mildly. Lucas’s light, self-deprecating tone masked a soft inside. Shrapnel scars had coarsened his heavy features. Brutish looks that intimidated bad guys weren’t generally an asset in other situations. “For now the Centaur Task Force operates out of an Interpol satellite office in Paris. The syndicate’s headquarters moves around, but the CTF has narrowed the current location to London.”
Lucas eyed him as if he knew there was more. No one read people better. “Rivera’s out but why not one of the others? And no bull about me being the best man for the job.”
Time for the trump card to seal the deal. “But you are, Del Rio. The others weren’t in my team in Iraq.”
Lucas merely waited, the granite planes of his face tight above the bush of beard.
Thomas finished the tea. Set down his glass. Held Lucas’s gaze. “Centaur came on the art theft scene around 2006. The leader is former American military. He goes after high-end stuff. His moniker is one letter—Z.”
Lucas blinked twice. His mouth thinned. “Marco Zervas. It fucking figures.”
“Only a hunch. After his sentence and dishonorable discharge, he vanished. No trace of him anywhere. Proving Z’s identity is part of your job with the CTF. If it’s Zervas, they need someone who knows him. And I expect you to keep me informed.”
A wide, white smile split the black beard. “Be my pleasure to take down that bastard.”
Venice, Italy - September
HAD SHE FINALLY broken her string of Mr. Wrongs?
Cleo Chandler shoved away her irritation. René was late, two hours late, but flights get delayed or canceled. Stuff happens.
Earbuds firmly implanted, she boogied from the kitchen with a chunky red candle as her dance partner. René was coming home tonight with news about a jewelry commission. Odd but it was his second mystery trip in two weeks. He’d promised to explain later. He was talented, sincere, and oh, so sexy. Maybe not Mr. Right Forever, but definitely Mr. Right Now.
No more users like Daniel who never had his wallet with him. No more cheats like Roger who used her bed as a launching pad for flights with other women. No more sketchy guys like Kurt who tried to involve her in a fake lottery scheme. No control freaks like the males in her family. Her fortunes had changed for the better. Smiling, she set the candle between the plates on their napkin-sized table.
“Perfect.” She gyrated back to the kitchen to the rhythm of Lady Gaga’s latest hit.
The white wine and garlic sauce needed a stir. For the branzin, as Venetians called sea bass, chilling in the small fridge. After leaving work at Bijoux Murano Rialto, she bought the fish from her favorite vendor at the Municipal Fish Market. Giancarlo even filleted it for her. She had never cooked much but how could you not be into food in Italy?
The sauce was thick enough, so she turned off the gas under the pan. Would anything be worth eating after all this delay?
“So where are you, Mr. Right Now?” She yanked out the earbuds and tossed her iPod next to René’s laptop. Nine o’clock. She’d finished the cheese and crackers hours ago. Now she was starving.
She lifted the neck of her long-sleeved white T-shirt between two fingers and nibbled on the knit. Late plane, missed plane, dead phone. Too many possibilities.
“Note to self: Never cook anything gourmet before the man actually arrives.”
She was supposed to meet Mimi at eleven outside the store. Why did everything have to happen at the same time? She’d hoped to have a nice dinner with René, and then the two of them would go have drinks with her cousin.
Her cousin. Wow. She hadn’t known until a month ago she had a cousin. She’d kept it secret until they’d actually met. Wait until Mom heard about this amazing reunion. Not really a reunion, but never mind. Tomorrow she’d call. Definitely.
Mimi had taken a break from her Mediterranean cruise to visit her. Having lunch and the afternoon together didn’t give them enough time. Mimi had to return to Rome early tomorrow, so no way could Cleo blow off the date. She should ask her cousin to come to the flat. Yeah, that would work.
As she reached for her mobile phone, she heard thumping on the stairs. Then a moan. What the hell? She rushed to the door and listened. “René?”
Another moan. A strained mumble that sounded like her name.
Was it safe? Should she open the door? “René?” A moan was her only answer. The locks didn’t want to work, but finally she cracked open the door.
René fell through the opening and staggered into her arms. She reeled with his weight. Lines bracketed his beautiful chocolate eyes, his long lashes spiky and wet. He was pale and bent like an old man, smelling of sweat and something metallic. He clutched his jacket front and panted with the effort of climbing the three flights. Too strange for a fit, agile man who often took those same stairs two and three at a time.
“René, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Her ire over his tardiness gone, she helped him to the sofa.
“Lock... door,” he muttered, sucking a breath between each word. Handsome face contorted in pain and shiny with sweat, he closed his eyes.
Oh, God, blood soaked the front of his jacket and shirt. The same blood smeared the front of her tee where she’d held him. A steel collar clamped her throat, and her breath came in short gasps. She recoiled, then forced herself to speak. “What happened to you?”
“Shot... me.” He gestured with one hand. Drops of blood clung to his fingertips. “The... door.”
Snapped to action by his insistence, Cleo flew to click all the locks. She snatched up the dishtowel. Kneeling at his side, she pressed the towel against the blood flow. All too quickly, the stain soaked the cloth and seeped between her fingers.
Nausea threatened at the sight and cloying smell of so much blood. No time for panic. She turned on her mobile phone. “I’m calling the ambulance.”
His hand clamped onto her arm before she could punch the number. “Non, je t’en prie! No ambulance. No police.” His grip weakened as pain racked him.
He made no sense. No ambulance? Trying to think, she reached for the locket she always wore. “What do you mean? I have to get help.”
When he opened his eyes again, he seemed stronger. But his face was gray, pale as ash, his cheeks tight against the bone. This couldn’t be happening. Her head reeled with the word no. She made herself breathe.
“No, it is too late. I failed. Listen.” His voice a mere whisper, he seemed calm, determined. “The necklace... you wore... picture.
She frowned. “Like Cleopatra’s. Yeah. That was a hoot, but what—”
He squeezed her hand but with no more strength than a child. “Listen. Real. Beyond price. Was going to kill me. Hid it. Killed me anyway. Will not find it. Gone now.” He tried to rise, to get in her face, but fell back, exhausted from his long speech.
Her stomach clenched. Tears blurred her vision. Impossible. René couldn’t die. He couldn’t. “But the police—”
“No police. Not safe. They are everywhere. Think you know... hiding place.” He stopped, struggling for breath. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. “You must leave Venice. Now. Before they find flat... find you.”
She tried to think, to comprehend what he was telling her. “The necklace. I could just give it to them. Tell me where it is and we’ll be safe.” Her voice broke, but she forged ahead. “I’ll take care of everything. It’ll be all right, René, you’ll see.”
“Non, non. Pas possible.” His voice faltered, grew fainter. He brushed her locket with a shaking hand. “Necklace, secrets. Run.”
“Where is the necklace?” She bent closer to his lips.
His whisper was barely intelligible. “Melon,” then “Pomp” or “Pope.” Maybe. “Ladder.” Then he fell silent.
Was that all? What did it mean? She raised her head to ask him to explain.
His eyes stared upward, unseeing, unblinking. Blank.
Copyright susan vaughan 2015