Authors: Jenn Stark
Born To Be Wilde
Immortal Vegas, Book 3
Copyright © 2016 by Jenn Stark
All rights reserved.
Cover design and Photography Gene Mollica
Formatting by Bemis Promotions
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
All rights reserved.
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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
—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.
,those eyes seemed to say.
I could work with that.
I’d never kissed Nigel Friedman before, and I found the experience far more enjoyable than I would’ve expected. I was beginning to wonder if he’d feel me up as part of the charade when newcomers breached the doorway and light flooded the room.
“Nigel!” The man at the door burst into a flood of embarrassed German, but I appreciated the distraction, if only to get a good look at the room around me with the benefit of light. As expected, there were more swans, but none of the Parsifal imagery that dominated the throne room. That meant the secret cubby hiding the cup I was searching for wasn’t here…but it couldn’t
be in the throne room, right? That place was way too crowded.
Nigel’s answering explanation to our interrupters was polite, perfunctory, and apparently satisfactory, despite all those harsh German consonants. Peeling me off the wall, he draped his arm over my shoulder. He wasn’t a big man, but he was well built, and I knew from experience he was both quick and strong. I knew from very
experience he had a mean choke hold too. So, I allowed myself to be pulled forward, smiling and blushing credibly. Then I slipped off as soon as we entered the main room.
I attempted to slip off, anyway.
“Not so fast.” Nigel was at my ear, his hand resting lightly on the small of my back. The sleek material fit me tightly, so I could feel the weight of the Brit’s hand—and would have felt its warmth if he wasn’t such a cold-blooded bastard. “What does Mercault have you looking for? I thought the French art had been completely recovered from this site.”
“There’s always more French art to be recovered.” Not untrue. Castle Neuschwanstein, original home of Mad King Ludwig, had served as one of the de facto Nazi hiding places for gold, artifacts, and precious art, much of it stolen from France during the occupation. A great deal of that art had been reclaimed immediately after the war, but there remained rumors of more treasures to be found in the endless castles dotting the lush German countryside. “Mercault heard of the Nazi gold getting dumped at the Rarity show last month. He thinks it’s a good time to grab the rest of the Third Reich’s goodies before they find their way into less discerning hands.” I turned to him. “Who’s
client, since we’re on the subject? I didn’t think MI6 went in for lost art.”
“They don’t. There’s new blood in the game, Viktor Dal. And trust me, he’s not looking for art.” He peered at me. “You know him?”
“Viktor Dal?” I blinked at him, weathering an eerie flash of déjà vu. I
heard the name before, but the guy I’d met ten years ago hadn’t had the kind of money it took to hire Nigel Friedman. He hadn’t had the money to pay for a decent shave. He’d been a shrink for the Memphis city school district, and a pretty mediocre one at that. Definitely a different Dal.
“Never heard of him,” I said. “More to the point, now seems an odd time for a new client to break into the arcane black market. What’s he—”
Before Nigel could respond, a tapering of music recalled our attention to the front of the room, and the crush of people shuffled forward. Nigel let go of me a little too easily this time. I didn’t trust the guy, sure, but tonight in particular he rubbed me the wrong way, setting aside his unexpected and frankly unnecessary kiss. What had that been about?
I brushed my hand against my mouth, then scrutinized my fingers. Nope, no skin-eating poison. A quick shake of my hair—nothing there either. But when I slid my hand along the back of my collar, my finger pads connected with a tiny ridge.
Very cute, Nigel
. I left the bug where it was for the time being. Nigel was dangerous, and he was nosy. But if he thought I was handled for the moment, he’d relax. Mulling over my next move, I focused on the room around me as our host spoke first in German and then English, welcoming us to Neuschwanstein. I didn’t have much time now. I needed to find the cup before the art auction ended, then exit stage right.
My gaze drifted up to the ceiling again. Yep, stars. Got that part.
Still, I forced myself to study the ceiling more carefully this time, trying to utilize all my senses, including the extrasensory ones. This was newish territory for me, but I didn’t have time for more dead ends. Up until a short while ago, my work as an artifact hunter for the Arcana Council and other paying clients had relied almost exclusively on my ability to read and interpret Tarot cards. It was a skill that proved very handy when it came to ferreting out the kind of magical trinkets that went for top dollar among the rich, powerful, and occasionally psychic.
After I’d started working with the Council about a year ago, however, things had gotten a little weirder. I’d begun to be able to find things with psychic abilities that didn’t rely on the turn of a card. Even now, as I peered at the ceiling, something shifted in my gaze, some of the stars appearing…different. Brighter. Bolder in a highly defined line that arced down the room. I lifted a hand to my eyes and waved it, but the brightness remained.