Tonight’s assignment had everything a girl could ask for: fairy-tale palaces, mad kings, Victorian decorators with a serious case of the swans.
I tucked my Tarot cards back into my clutch. The limo rolled to a stop in front of Castle Neuschwanstein and I fixed my expression into polite indifference as I was helped out of the limo and into the cool Bavarian evening. So what if I was walking into the original Disneyland castle? My daydreams of princesses and dashing knights had long since detoured into far darker territory.
The line through security at the palace’s main entrance was short. Only the crème de la crème of the international art community had been invited for tonight’s exclusive art auction, and my own letter of introduction was accepted without comment. Given that I’d been sent by one of the richest collectors in America, it should be. Hotelier Armaeus Bertrand had money, power, and a known weakness for objets d’art—the older and the more arcane the better. Granted, the leader of the ultrasecret, ultramagical Arcana Council had also seemed a touch too earnest about the piece he’d wanted me to grab tonight…but his finder’s fee had been all the incentive I’d needed. Given my extracurricular interests, money was always in short supply.
“Your bag, miss?” The burly security officer held out his hand and hesitated the barest moment as he discovered the silk-wrapped Tarot deck tucked in with my lipstick and credit cards. He glanced up at me.
“For luck,” I said. “Check them if you’d like. They’re only cards.” The top three had been turned back into the deck already, their message clear. The Star, the Seven of Swords, and the Ace of Cups were waiting for me within these walls, and I wanted to get on with it.
After a perfunctory scan, the guard did his German best not to look at me like I was a loon. I gave him my standard “eccentric American” look, then I was through.
A line of auction officials herded us quickly through the courtyard and a half-dozen chambers before we all stepped into the dazzling throne room of King Ludwig II. Fantastically lush paintings, gilded scrollwork, and ornate tapestries lined the walls above the draped auction exhibits. My gaze moved up, up, up…and I stilled.
Stars. A virtual constellation of stars spun out in all directions from the throne room. As the general horde moved forward toward the musicians and hors d’oeuvres, I picked one branch of the celestial trail and followed it into one side antechamber, then another.
Each of the small rooms contained more art—these pieces uncovered. They did not, however, contain the piece I was looking for.
According to Armaeus, Ludwig II didn’t just harbor an extreme affection for elegant waterfowl. He’d hidden a cup of great renown somewhere amid those feathered friends. And I was supposed to find it.
The third chamber held no interest for me, but the fourth seemed more promising. I nodded to the docent at the door and moved into the small room. At least the shadows here were long and quiet, in sharp contrast to the crash of Wagnerian music that had begun swelling from the next chamber. I relaxed my tension a notch. Any place that allowed me to avoid over-the-top opera music was okay by me.
I stepped deeper into the shadows, and squinted into the gloom toward the dimly lit jewelry display—
My head cracked against the wall.
Pain blossomed above my right ear as stars of an entirely different universe exploded in front of my eyes.
“Sara Wilde. What a lovely surprise.”
I flipped around, but Nigel Friedman’s hand was at my throat, and my attempted cry of outrage sounded alarmingly gopher-like. The best I could do, given my lack of oxygen. The fist of the ex-UK Special Forces all-star tightened around my esophagus as he shoved me farther up against the wall.
“Who sent you here?” Nigel’s polite British accent complemented perfect features, a well-cut suit, and expensive cologne, and his lips twitched with satisfaction as I clawed at his manicured fingers.
“Client,” I managed, attempting to triangulate the precise location of the man’s groin despite my blurring vision. Seven of Swords, my brain pounded as I struggled for air. Seven of Swords. Deception, surprise, and time for a change of strategy. Sometimes my cards could be painfully on the nose.
“Which one?” Nigel flexed his fingers against my windpipe as he waited for my answer.
There really was no reason to lie to him, even if he was my most irritating artifact-finding competitor.
I couldn’t resist, though. Habits.
“Mercault,” I gasped as Nigel’s gaze sharpened. He abruptly relaxed his grip, allowing me to slide back down the richly painted wall. As expected, the name of the French kingpin of the arcane black market served as a universal “open sesame” for Nigel’s choke hold. The Brit always was too curious for his own good.
Unfortunately, however, said Brit continued to stare at me with renewed interest. Renewed interest from Nigel Friedman was always bad.
“There were rumors he’d escaped the massacre,” he murmured, tilting his head. “Were you part of the reason why?” In the shadowed chamber, he seemed much larger than when I’d seen him last. Then again, when I’d seen him last, we’d both been completely naked. The two of us knocking over the same Amazonian orgy for the same ancient fertility idol. So my perspective was a little off.
“Maybe I was.” I lifted a hand to my neck. “Maybe I wasn’t. What are you doing here anyway? Because we’d better not be looking for the same thing. I’d hate to see you miss out twice.”
“We’re not.” Nigel curled his upper lip in disdain. He was really good at that. “We should return to the main hall, however.” He turned slightly at a noise in the hallway, then uttered an impressively impolite word that still sounded refined, coming from him. “Too late.”
I scowled, palpating my crushed thyroid. “Too late for—”
Nigel didn’t give me time to finish the question. He turned back and pushed me up against the wall once more, only this time his mouth found mine in a brutal, teeth-rattling kiss while his hand snaked behind my neck. His lips were surprisingly soft, his body rock solid, but the look in Nigel’s eyes as they bored into mine wasn’t amorous, exactly, despite the intensity of his gaze.
Play along, those eyes seemed to say.
I could work with that.