As she moved along the bare wood-paneled corridor, Nikki Sage worried that her target had slipped past her. Yes, she could always track him down on board Star Queen—the interstellar luxury liner wasn’t that big, after all—but she preferred meeting him sooner. The more time she had to steal back her family’s heirloom, the better.
For the hundredth time, she scanned the queue of people behind her and searched for the elderly gentleman in possession of her prize. Nikki’s gaze alighted on a tall blond with broad shoulders, a slim waist, and plenty of strapping muscles. He had a touch of strawberry in his wavy hair, a lock of which fell persistently in his twinkling green eyes without diminishing the radiant smile he currently directed at someone moving beside him in the line.
He had the face of an angel. She smiled to herself, enjoying the view. It took her a moment to register the identity of the person beside him. The hunched elderly gentleman the solicitous young man was helping traverse the hallway was the very prey she sought. The little old man shuffling along beside the Adonis was none other than her target Mr. Montague himself.
Alarm bells blared in Nikki’s head. Her admiration of the Adonis instantly turned to distrust. When people looked too good to be true like he did, they were.
After all, she projected an angelic look—in spades—and she was a pirate. Her golden blond hair framed a round face with big wide-set baby blue eyes and rosebud lips that could be pouty. She stood less than average height and her slim figure had just enough curves that she’d never be mistaken for a boy. The aura of innocence she projected—little did strangers know—automatically gave her a pass in nearly any situation.
With her diminutive stature and girlish, innocent face, people normally assumed she was closer to fifteen than to her actual twenty-five years. And they never, ever guessed her larcenous intentions. Men and women alike fell over each other to coddle her like a little sister.
She kept an eager smile on her face and peered to the front of the line as if trying to see how soon she’d be on board. After all, she was about to embark on a journey among the stars. How could she be anything but thrilled? But she had to stifle a growl deep in her throat. She hated competition, no matter how handsome.
The line moved again and she moved with it, pulling along her two wheeled suitcases.
She pretended to pay attention to the queue of people in front of her, but her thoughts remained on Mr. Montague and his—new?—companion. Perhaps the attentive man was hired help, a caretaker, or bodyguard, or even a doctor.
No, not a doctor, Nikki corrected. The guy looked her age, not old enough. And he didn’t have the wary, standoffish aura about him that a bodyguard did. So, a new caretaker? Or perhaps a young relative or employee she’d missed in her research on the whole Montague clan?
No, Nikki didn’t believe that. She was careful and thorough. Meticulous, even. She didn’t miss things like that. She—with help from some of her pirate crewmates—had found extensive information on the entire Montague clan. There’d been no strapping man with red-blond hair and a smile brighter than a supernova in the family or working for them. She’d definitely have remembered.
So the next possibility was that he was after the same target she was.
That she could believe. She’d learned Montague had the precious object with him—again, thanks to a master hacker crewmate—so others could have discovered it as well.
She eyed the handsome ‘angel’ and frowned as the young man slowed his pace to that of his companion and kept a protective hand on the elderly gentleman’s arm.
Her plan had been to befriend the Montague patriarch, or a younger member of his family. Once she was close to them and had gained their trust, it would be simple for her to track their activities. That way, knowing when they were out of their suite, she could steal back The Eye of Lanai at her leisure.
In light of the complication, she revised her intentions and kept the pair in sight as the queue moved toward the star liner. She no longer wanted to take the time to work slowly.
When her turn came to board, Nikki swiped her—fake—id card in the slot at the side of Star Queen’s entryway. The computer in the wall confirmed her electronic ticket purchase and room assignment. Double glass doors slid apart, revealing the illusion that Nikki had just stepped hundreds of years into the past.
Twenty meters of gangplank led to what looked like an old time ocean liner instead of the twenty-sixth century star liner. She admired the top-rate holography. A salty breeze blew in off the turquoise ocean. White-crested waves lapped at the side of the ‘ocean liner’ and in the ‘distance’ tumbled up the golden sand before rolling back to the glistening cerulean sea.
Instead of brilliant stars and gloriously shimmering nebulae, a crystal azure sky stretched above her. A flock of gulls cawed noisily and swooped down to the sea then soared back into the sky. A gentle bobbing beneath her feet simulated the motion of the sea. Nikki snickered. Passengers who didn’t get spacesick could always end up seasick.
The ship’s lobby was three stories high, and two staircases—one along the curved wall to her left and the other to her right—linked the main deck with the two above. Knowing how the rich liked every convenience, Nikki was surprised the staircases weren’t moving to convey passengers faster. But that would have clashed with the old-time nautical ambiance.
She did notice some discreet alcoves with transports—both horizontal and vertical—that could quickly and quietly take people who eschewed walking to any section of the ship. Tempting though they were—the vessel easily measured three hundred meters in length—Nikki wanted to explore the ship to make sure it matched up to the floor plans she’d memorized.
She didn’t want to lug her two oversized suitcases behind her. After double checking the locks—not that she was foolhardy enough to leave anything valuable in them—she deposited the luggage in one of the cargo transports and punched in her room number.
They’d be waiting for her when she finally visited her cabin.
That left her free to follow her prey—Mr. Malcolm Montgomery Montague V, patriarch of the passel of Montagues on board, including son VI and grandson VII—and explore the Star Queen at the same time.
While getting the lay of the ship, Nikki also hoped to get acquainted with her target. She had to trust her research that he’d brought the heirloom with him. Her pirate shipmates would hack the ship’s logs to confirm that he declined to use the ship’s saferoom. She’d swap it out with the replacement she’d brought.
With any luck, the Montagues might not even notice.
Fifty years ago Grandfather Sage had lost—well, other pirates had stolen—the Eye of Lanai, not just a fist-sized sapphire set in platinum, but their family’s magical talisman ever since his grandfather’s grandfather had stolen it centuries before.
Their family’s network of spies had spotted the gemstone and, thanks to her angelic face, it was her job to retrieve it. Family honor and pirates’ honor and all that. It didn’t do to allow people to steal from them, after all. Set a really bad precedent and sullied the reputation besides. After all, the Sages were infamous as profoundly successful pirates. How would it look if they then lost their loot?
Plus even though her family prospered without the magic, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have it back. Besides, the magic wouldn’t do anyone outside their family any good. According to family lore, it remained latent for anyone not of their bloodline. And they’d lost it so long ago that the familial legends were beginning to fade. The Sage Clan had continued to increase its fortunes without the stone, so maybe it wasn’t enchanted after all, some of her cousins said. But Nikki had paid attention to the stories, and she believed in the enchantment.
Although the Sages called themselves—accurately—pirates, her family relied more on stealth than swashbuckling. Which was still her plan, to sneak away with the prize. She just had to avoid the far-too-attractive competition.
~ ~ ~
Momentarily overcoming the simulation of a gently rolling sea, the deck underfoot trembled. The powerful engines of the spacecraft rumbled to life in preparation for Star Queen to leave port.
Nikki strolled along behind Mr. Montague and the young man, happy that she blended in with the wealth of passengers. She wanted to mix with the crowd and not attract her target’s—or her competitor’s—attention.
Candelabras—the ‘flames’ actually light bulbs—lit the broad hallway with its plush royal blue carpeting. Montague and his new shadow—where was the rest of his family anyway?—ambled past several suites until they came to a lounge with plush upholstered chairs and sofas scattered about. Some of the furniture was grouped and other pieces were more solitary. A mahogany bar, where a man and a woman hurriedly and expertly dispensed drinks ran along the left wall. Soft piano music underscored the buzz of conversation and the clink of glassware.
To Nikki’s delight, this sitting area departed from the ocean liner conceit. In contrast to the nineteenth century décor, the entire far wall was transparent and allowed passengers to see out into deep space and gaze among the stars.
Likewise preferring stars to seas, Nikki was pleased that Mr. Montague shuffled into one such lounge. His young attendee settled Montague into one of a pair of comfortable chairs facing the spectacular view and made sure his cane was at hand. Just as Nikki drifted within earshot, he said he’d be right back with drinks.
No time like the present.
She waited a beat then, pretending she hadn’t noticed Montague’s companion, dropped into the seat beside the old man. She stretched out her legs and rested her head back, then turned her head and gave him her brightest smile. “Isn’t this exciting? I’ve never been off planet before. But you look so relaxed, like a seasoned traveler.” She sat up straighter and thrust out a hand. “Sara Smith.”
He regarded her indulgently, taking her hand in his. His grip was dry and surprisingly strong for one of such a frail appearance. “Malcolm.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Malcolm.” She beamed at him, innocence at full blast.
He chuckled. “No, no, young lady. Just ‘Malcolm’. Malcolm Montague is my name.”
A slight frown creased her brow as she pretended to ponder that, then her eyes went wide for the briefest second. “Of the Montague Group, that funds all those environmental causes? I’m honored, sir, I truly am. Thank you so much for all your efforts!”
He blushed, lending some much needed color to his pallor, and looked inordinately pleased at her praise. “That’s very kind of you to say, young lady.”
At that moment the handsome young man’s shadow reappeared, a ceramic mug in each hand. If he was at all discomfited or annoyed to see Nikki in ‘his’ seat, he hid it masterfully. Her respect for him rose. He was good. Which meant her own annoyance rose in tandem although she took care to not let it show. She’d have to be especially careful—and fast—to beat him to the prize.
Montague reached up and clutched the young man’s sleeve, not hard enough to spill any liquid. “Conner, this is Sara. She knows all about our environmental work.”
“Hi.” He flashed a smile at her, then bent close to Montague and carefully handed one of the mugs to the philanthropist. Without missing a beat, he offered the other one to Nikki. “Would you care for some hot chocolate?”
She had to admit, the smile he directed at her sent a warm tingle up and down her spine. He was so gorgeous. A pang of sadness stabbed at her gut that she had to keep her distance, or at least only keep him as close as one kept an enemy.
She reminded herself firmly she had never lacked for male companions and could have the pick of pretty much any man she liked. It was easier to not get attached and she liked it that way. Much safer for a pirate.
“Oh, no, no thanks. But it’s sweet of you to ask.” She directed her charm at him, careful to keep it light and appealing rather than cloying, and was rewarded by Connor blushing just as Malcolm had.
It looked so much better on the younger man.
“Are you traveling with family or friends, Sara?” Malcolm asked. The quick glance he directed at Connor—who’d stepped off to the side, her side, and no longer blocked their view—was not at all subtle.
“No, I’m by myself,” she said bravely. “I have five sisters,” she had one brother, “and they aren’t adventurous at all,” and he was first officer on an aunt’s pirate frigate, “so I decided to forge ahead without them.”
“Then you must join us for dinner.” Malcolm’s tone brooked no argument, even if she had wanted to protest.
This was just too easy, getting so friendly with him so quickly. Which of course made her suspicious, since it also fell into the ‘too good to be true’ category, but for the moment, she could roll with it to see where it went.
“I would love to!” She said in all honesty. “As long as I won’t be imposing.”
“Not at all, not at all.”
He pointed out the window, “Isn’t it amazing?” Over the rim of his cup he peered at the sight as he sipped the steaming liquid.
Looking where Malcolm had indicated, she had to agree. The beauty of the moon, a shimmery silver orb against the velvety black, diamond-sparkled background sent a shiver through her.
Conner—if that was even his real name—stood at her side and sipped his drink. Nikki inhaled the rich cocoa aroma surrounding her and almost wished she’d taken him up on his offer. Almost. But that would have made her careless because he might have slipped something into the drink when he saw her sitting there.
Tipping back his head, Malcolm slurped the final drops of chocolate and gave a satisfying smack of his lips. Conner hastened to take the empty mug from him, easily holding both in one hand.
“I’m afraid you two youngsters will have to excuse me,” Malcolm declared, a blatant twinkle in his blue eyes, but also tiredness, as he reached for the cane leaning at his left elbow. “But these old bones need a nap before dinner, or I’ll keel over sound asleep in my food.”
“Let me help you.” Conner offered his arm.
Malcolm brushed him off, but with affection, as he positioned the cane in front of him and heaved himself to his feet. “No, no, you stay here and enjoy the view,” he shamelessly winked, indicating he didn’t mean out the window. “I see my grandson coming. Mal!” he raised his voice and his cane, waving the wooden stick in the air.
Number VII, looked a great deal like his number V, only with a great deal fewer years. Lanky, with a lean face like his grandfather, and with a confident gait that was decades away from needing a cane, Mal smiled and waved as he strode over to them. Like his centenarian grandfather, he had a full head of hair, but his light brown hair had touches of silver only at the temples whereas the elder man’s had long since gone pure white. Hale and healthy, Mal looked ten years younger than his age of half a century.
Beside the grandson strolled an even younger copy. Number VIII. The whole family really was aboard. Nikki had thought the great grandson wasn’t coming—her research included hacking their schedules, and the passenger list—but he had obviously managed at the last moment.
Nikki rose as Malcolm introduced Mal and Monte. His progeny said they’d escort him to his stateroom for the nap—leaving Nikki and Conner standing there looking at each other.
“So you’re traveling with Malcolm?” she asked, pretending to make the logical assumption. Even though she already believed the men had just met.
“No,” Conner admitted, eyes downcast and shuffling his feet. “I’m afraid I tripped over his cane in the waiting area, and he befriended me. Which was awfully nice of him considering I’d nearly sent him sprawling.”
She gasped, still careful not to overplay. “Thank heavens neither of you were hurt!”
“Not my finest moment, but Malcolm is a true gentleman.”
Conner stepped closer sending a tingle of heat through Nikki, and handed the empty mugs to a passing waiter.
She smiled up at him, feigning sudden shyness. “Will I see you at dinner?”
“Sure, see you then. Unless,” he held out a hand, “you care to explore the ship now? We have a few hours.”
Without thinking, she slipped her hand into his and a jolt of electricity raced through her body. Not letting her expression waiver, she reminded herself sternly that she needed to keep an eye on him, not let down her guard.
Right. That’s why they were strolling, hand-in-hand, down the richly carpeted passageway. Diligence at her job. She was wise not to let him out of her sight.
She didn’t believe that the second time she told herself either.
Or the third.
“So where shall we start exploring? Do you prefer the old-time nautical deck?” Conner asked, “Or the regular viewing decks?”
She sighed contentedly. “Oh, I like them both the same. What about you?”
He pondered just a moment. “I like the real windows,” he finally said. “Nothing against the romance of sailing the high seas—I’m a history enthusiast—but I also like to see what’s really out there.”
“Me too. I think it would be fascinating to visit the past.” She beamed at him. “But it doesn’t match the excitement of zooming between the stars.”
He grinned back, giving her hand a little squeeze as he did so.
Heat rose in her cheeks in response to his easy charm. Could he really be the good Samaritan he seemed? She couldn’t rule out any possibility. But she didn’t believe that for a moment, even if—for the first time she could remember—she hoped her suspicions about him were unfounded.
They found one of the aft lounges and instead of sitting, opted to stand at the huge window where they watched Earth and the moon shrink to nothing behind them as Star Queen left port. The ship cruised close to light speed, giving them a view of the asteroid belt overhead as the ship avoided it. The Star Queen rose back into the planetary plane and they had a stunning look at Jupiter and its moons as the star liner sailed by. A short while later, passengers were treated to the same panoramic view of Saturn.
Then through the soles of her feet, Nikki felt the engines’ vibration change. Saturn disappeared behind them as Star Queen accelerated to lightspeed and roared silently out of the solar system.
“Nothing to see but stars now. Shall we explore further?” They’d stood shoulder to shoulder, and Conner offered his hand again.
As they rambled, still hand in hand, around the ship, enjoying the nautical theme and wandering along what appeared to be an ocean liner’s deck, she asked, “You’re traveling alone too?”
His face clouded and his expression looked so genuine that Nikki felt bad when he replied. “My parents just died. I needed to get away for a while.”
“I’m so sorry.” He might have been playing her, but some instinct told her he wasn’t. When her intuition clashed with her intellect, she tended to trust her gut. Per family tradition, she’d traveled extensively before joining the pirating business. Thanks to the experience—and to getting herself out of any number of jams—she’d become an excellent judge of character well beyond her tender years.
She wasn’t willing to risk the whole mission by letting down her guard around Conner, but she really longed to believe her gut wasn’t steering her wrong now.
He gave a weak smile and squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you that. I came to cheer myself up, not to depress others.”
They stood in companionable silence looking out over the azure ‘ocean’.
“I’m glad you’ll be at dinner,” he said suddenly, as if the statement surprised him.
“Me, too.” And she was even more surprised how much she meant it, and not because it allowed her to keep an eye on someone after the same target as she. If her instinct was right, Conner just might be someone she could grow very attached to if she weren’t careful.
They explored for a couple of hours, eventually agreeing to go their separate ways so they could dress for the formal evening meal.
But she had other things besides primping to do in the meantime.
Jogging to one of the airlocks in a deserted cargo section of the vessel, Nikki took an electronic device, square and flat and small enough for her to conceal in one hand, out of her pocket and punched in a code.
She loved the electronic master keys her crew carried, courtesy of inventor/hacker extraordinaire Speedy. Besides opening an electronic or computerized lock, the multi-purpose devices had built-in scanners and radios. The key could get her in and out of pretty much anywhere, and could make her virtually invisible—at least to any electronic surveillance.
The hatch slid open and she entered the pirate ship attached to the underbelly of the big star liner. The onboard version of the electronic key made Family Pride undetectable to the larger ship it was hitching a ride on.
After the doors sealed behind her, she flipped a switch to the com unit on the wall and sang, “I’m here!” into the mic/speaker. “Meeting time.”
As she made her way to Family Pride’s mess hall, her nerves attacked with a vengeance. Crap. They couldn’t have waited till after she left? She didn’t want anyone else to see.
She beat everyone else there and took a seat, trying to compose herself.
She rubbed her sweaty palms on her pants, but the moisture stubbornly refused to go away. Damn it she was twenty-five, not five! She could do this. But the acute nervousness wouldn’t abate and the knot that had just settled in her stomach persisted.
Her sharp-eyed uncle sauntered in, and one corner of his mouth quirked upward in a sly smile. But then he winked, the gesture both affectionately mocking and encouraging at the same time. Tall, dark and lean, with mischief always sparkling in his brown eyes, her uncle looked like such a pirate. Always had. Especially to the niece who’d adored him ever since she was small.
Nikki grinned back at him as the rest of the crew took their time coming to the table. With a crew of ten, herself included, they didn’t need a big meeting area.
Suddenly all eyes were on her, and all she could think was that she couldn’t afford to blow this mission, only her third with the crew and the biggest by far. She wanted to prove herself to Uncle Nik, otherwise known as Captain Nikkos Sage. She needed to prove herself to the rest of the crew so they knew—family business or not—she’d earn her place among them.
And she wanted to make her own fortune as well. Some day she’d have her own ship.
But mostly she wanted this particular mission under her belt to redeem the family name, preferably before her grandfather died.
“I still say we should take the ship.” The first officer lunged into one of the chairs, and Nikki marveled that it didn’t collapse under the man’s weight. Not that Yvgeny Breshnev was fat; just the opposite. The huge bull of a man was all muscle.
“Ten of us, ten thousand of them. I think we’d be overestimating our chances just a tad,” Nikkos retorted mildly.
Yvgeny skewered him with a sour look. “I meant a saferoom sweep and you know it. A ship that size, ten of us, we can be in and out in thirty minutes, probably before Baby Doll there gets her magic charm.”
Nikki forced herself not to react aside from rolling her eyes. Objecting to the teasing only exacerbated it. But she had to do something about that nickname.
“Why not?” Yvgeny pressed. “We’re due for a big haul, and this’ll be an easy one.” He ignored the captain’s eloquently raised brow. “It will be! Last time was not my fault! No one knew about the updated security.”
Nikkos relented. “All right. We’re here for the Eye. Anything else is extra. So after she gives the signal she’s got it, we make a fast run at the safe room. One pass, in and out, that’s it. No loitering.”
“I’ll move as fast as I can. Looks like we might have competition on this one,” Nikki told them, explaining about Conner. “I’m pretty sure he’s after something, maybe not specifically the Eye of Lanai, but he has latched on to Malcolm Montague.” Nikki and the others didn’t care about the super rich financier’s other items. “Find what I need, Speedy?”
“Of course.” Katrine “Speedy” Olschevski—the captain’s cousin and the crew’s master hacker extraordinaire of any and all things computerized—shot Nikki an affronted glare.
Nikki stuck out her tongue in response, and her friend continued. “Montague is in stateroom 13013 on deck H. Other members of his family have 13014-18 on the same deck. They’re all adjoining; it’s like a big huge luxury apartment complex and it has three safes. I double checked in case he changed his mind and used the safe room. Nothing is logged in under the Montague name. I ran a comparison, and all the names that are logged match up to other passengers, so they don’t have it hidden under a fake name.” The lanky brunette lounged back in her chair, a smug expression on her lean face.
Nikki grinned. This would be too easy. It wasn’t that the cruise line was stupid or lax in any way. Quite the contrary, their security was impressive, cutting edge. Speedy was just that much better.
“All right.” Nikki stood. “I have to dress for dinner. I’m hoping the whole family will turn out, and Malcolm V moves very slowly. I should have time to slip into his room once he leaves for the dining hall, get and hide the Eye, and still beat them all to dinner.”
~ ~ ~
Nikki reached her cabin on the Star Queen without encountering any pesky crew members. As she closed the door behind her, she sagged against it in relief that she’d avoided anyone demanding to know why she was lurking in the bowls of the ship—the sections off limits to passengers.
The little room had a fresh, clean feel to it, with pale blue walls and a darker blue carpet. A steward had left her suitcases on the bed against the left wall. A portal separated two chairs in the room and a dresser with a door on either side of it took up the third wall of the tiny quarters. Not much of a room, but of course the point of a cruise was to mingle with fellow travels and see the sites, not to hide out in a cabin.
She opened the first of the two doors on her right to find a closet with one shelf high up and a rod for hangers right below it. She closed that door and opened the one beside it which sported a full-length mirror. The faintest smell of bleach lingered in the bathroom attesting to the fact that it had just been cleaned, and sure enough, it sparkled white from the sink to the bathtub to the toilet.
Nikki changed out of her trousers and heavy sweater and into a flattering cowl-necked blouse, sharply tailored slacks of the finest wool, and a matching jacket. The cheery scarlet complimented her coloring perfectly. She brushed her hair till it gleamed and decided to leave it loose.
She tucked the all-important purple velvet pouch into her waistband and made sure her jacket hid it completely.
Heels would have added height, but she didn’t own any; she didn’t believe in killing her feet and heels were awfully hard to run in.
Not that she planned on having anyone chase her, but she liked to be prepared for any eventuality. Even wearing plain flat pumps instead of stilettos, she looked more than ritzy enough to be gallivanting on deck H.
A few couples nodded politely at her as they passed and she smiled and greeted them in return.
She checked her watch. Twenty minutes till dinner. Five minutes to get to the Montague suite. More than enough time.
The higher the deck letter, the more plush the carpet underfoot became. Plain old lights overhead gave way to elegant sconces on the wall and chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings. They simulated candlelight, albeit far brighter. Gold script numbers marked each room.
Reaching the room with 13013 emblazoned on the door, Nikki took out her electronic master key and pinged the suite. The little red dot on the floorplan displayed on the key showed an occupant in the suite. Whoever is was, wasn’t in the room in front of her but rather two rooms over.
Not optimum, but, regardless, no time to waste.
It would take her all of ten seconds to get in and out, barely enough time for the person to sprint, let alone walk, the length of the suite.
She let herself in and froze just inside the door, listening. Barely audible, faint beeps came from a safe two rooms over as if someone had left without shutting it correctly. Maybe a straggler late leaving for dinner was retrieving a piece of jewelry or something.
She hoped so, because if they didn’t close the safe or deactivate the timer, the alarm could sound at any minute. But she didn’t have time to worry about it. Her gaze swept over the richly upholstered sofas and chairs in the spacious room.
A painting of a crystal vase full of multicolor roses on the far wall hung centered over a decorative table carved from mahogany. On either side of the table, a sofa jutted straight out from the wall. To the right, the suite ended, but to the left, half a dozen chairs formed a semi-circle around a cozy-looking fireplace. No doubt fake, but it added to the old-time ambiance of the room. The archway beside it led to the bedroom which adjoined rest of the suite.
Nikki crossed the suite to the rose portrait. It swung out on noiseless hinges at her touch.
The safe two rooms over stopped beeping then papers rustled, the noise careful and quiet like someone trying to hide.
That made no sense. Unless…
Nikki’s breathing quickened and her heart pounded, the slamming so loud in her ears it was a wonder the whole ship couldn’t hear it.
Someone must have broken in to the next cabin. That was the only explanation that made sense: that person was rummaging through the safe and, once finished, would move either in Nikki’s direction or away. Unless they chose to exit the suite.
Either way, Nikki needed to leave. Now.
She pressed her electronic key to the safe behind the rose painting, muted the timer then keyed it open. The little door slide aside with a soft ‘whoooooosh’ that thundered in the silence.
That wasn’t good.
Couldn’t be helped, but still…
All sound stopped from the other room.
Nikki grabbed the purple velvet satchel holding the real Eye of Lanai, shoved the identical satchel with its replica inside, closed the safe door and the painting, and ducked down behind the couch furthest from the archway. Footsteps came from the other room but the tread was so light she could easily have believed she’d imagined them.
She peeked around the corner of the sofa.
Conner appeared in the archway, studying the room, and she jerked back.
Damn! Her first guess had been right. So much for trusting her instincts and believing his story. Still, the best lies were closest to the truth. Maybe he had just lost someone close to him.
He went right to the safe, which now looked completely undisturbed.
Voices and laughter sounded at the outside door just as Conner pulled the painting open and popped the safe door.
He dove behind the sofa—Nikki’s sofa, barely missing her—just as Mal and Monte walked in.
“I’ll get it, it’s…” Mal’s words cut off abruptly.
Nikki peeked again, seeing Mal and Monte gawking and transfixed by the open safe, then twisted back to Conner silently getting his feet under him and staring wide-eyed at her crouching beside him.
It took every ounce of her willpower not to burst out laughing.
Not that anything about the situation was even remotely funny.
But it was just so absurd that she nearly couldn’t keep it in. Of course it wouldn’t be nearly so amusing when the two of them were both sitting in the brig. Which she expected to be the case after the two men called the ship’s security.
Conner leaned close, resting his forehead against hers. Before she even had time to think, let alone react, he kissed her hard on the mouth, stunning her so badly she nearly fell off her heels and back onto her butt.
“What the hell…?” Mal exclaimed.
Her gaze darted towards Mal’s voice, sure he’d be looking right at them over the back of the sofa, but he stood there staring at the safe.
Conner’s eyes met Nikki’s for just a second. He mouthed the words, “Stay here,” then burst from behind the sofa, bolted out the door, and raced down the hallway.
Reflexively, the two men chased after him, shouting at him to stop.
Nikki leapt from behind the sofa and dashed to the door. Mal’s and Monte’s yelling sounded further away, so she slipped out of the suite and, forcing herself not to run, tucked her prize into her waistband and walked in the opposite direction.
What in the world had just possessed Conner to save her ass—at the expense of his own?
~ ~ ~
Fifteen minutes to get to the dining room, but she wanted to drop off the heirloom first. Besides, with all the alarms going off, her crewmates would be frantic. She wasn’t in the least surprised when, back on board Family Pride, the entire crew greeted her in the hatchway.
“Are you all right?” Nikkos grabbed her by the shoulders. “What happened?”
“It was Conner, the man I told you about.” She described exactly what had happened, minus the kiss.
Their frowns and scowls turned instantly to huge grins and happy smiles.
“Come on, let’s see it!” Yvgeny demanded.
Nikki tugged at the drawstring until the knot came loose and the satchel came open.
She tipped the contents into her hand. The fiery triangle-cut sapphire surrounded by its glittering platinum setting covered her palm. Resplendent.
And as soon as it touched her skin, Nikki felt a spark. It persisted, as if she held a blaze in her hand just waiting for her command.
“It’s true!” she blurted.
Nikkos took the talisman from her, an expression of bliss on his face confirming he felt the same sensation of heat as she. “Family lore doesn’t lie,” he said. He passed it around so the other crew members could all confirm for themselves what the familial history had always claimed.
“I should get to dinner,” Nikki said as the others examined her prize. “No use casting suspicion on Sara Smith since we don’t need to.”
“You don’t want to leave?” Nikkos sounded surprised. “He could still tell them about you, you know.”
“No. Conner distracted them and made sure I got away. If he were going to turn me in, he wouldn’t have run to save me. If he’d stayed put, yes maybe they would have found us both. But maybe neither of us would have been caught.”
“Still sounds awfully risky,” Speedy said.
“No…” Nikki said slowly. “Getting him out of the brig will be risky. It’s the least I can do after he helped me. I need to go to dinner. Then I need to figure out some way to break him out.”
Nikkos gaped at her. “You’re not serious.”
“Seems only fair. He didn’t have to help me.” She eyed the sapphire and held out her hand for the gem. “I can hold on to that, right? Till we give it to Grandpa?” After all, she was the one who stole it, even if it did belong to the whole clan.
Nikkos reluctantly handed it back to her.
Nikki smirked. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking it to dinner. I’ll be back for it when I need it.”
Her uncle grimaced but didn’t object any further.
“I guess the rest of our plans are off,” Yvgeny said dourly, looking so tragic that Nikki was afraid he was going to start to cry. “We’ll never get in to the saferoom now.”
~ ~ ~
The dining hall buzzed with news of the failed robbery attempt. As Nikki threaded her way among the tables, she caught snatches of conversation all breathless and aghast. They bandied about words like ‘robber’ and ‘thief’, and ‘horrible’ and ‘unbelievable’, ‘scary’ and ‘frightening’, and ‘unconscionable’.
But apparently the details hadn’t leaked yet. She found the Montagues’ two tables and gratefully accepted the seat the patriarch offered on his left. To Malcom’s right, sat a lady Nikki could only call a Grande Dame. Willowy and white-haired, wearing a classic gown, his wife looked lovely. Various other men and women, all much younger, sat at the tables. Mal and Monte hadn’t shown up yet, nor—of course—had Conner.
Nikki was pleased she wasn’t even late—thanks to sprinting through the corridors.
“What happened?” Nikki asked after they exchanged pleasantries. “The way everyone is talking, it sounds like something dreadful! Burglary or something? Was anyone hurt?”
Before anyone could reply, one of the ships stewards came to the table and begged everyone’s pardon for the interruption. He leaned over and whispered something in Mrs. Montague’s ear. One hand flew to her bejeweled throat and she nearly choked on her own breath.
She quelled any further overt reaction and leaned close to her husband. “Malcolm, we need to go back to the room,” she spoke quietly but the gravity of her words was clear. “Please enjoy your dinner,” she ordered the rest of the family. “We will be back shortly.”
All in all, very nicely done. Nikki admired the total discretion and finesse with which Malcolm and his wife been told their attention was required elsewhere. She didn’t think any passenger not at their table even noticed the august couple’s departure.
Although the rest of the family was understandably curious about the abrupt departure—as evidenced by their plentiful questions—they honored their matriarch’s request by finishing dinner as if nothing were wrong.
Dinner passed without further incident.
~ ~ ~
Back in her cabin, her dressy attire peeled off and packed away, Nikki pulled on a more comfortable outfit: loose pants and a crew-necked pullover.
Then she took her two suitcases back to her real quarters—on Family Pride.
Nikki already loved her little room even though she’d joined the crew mere months ago. Superficially not that different from the simple cabin aboard the luxury liner—although it did lack carpeting—the little cabin nonetheless welcomed her like she belonged on the pirate ship. Family pictures covered the dresser, and her nephew and niece had made the two round pillows on the bed.
The Eye of Lanai beckoned to her from her dresser.
Sitting on the bed, she studied the magical heirloom. She took a deep breath, met her own gaze in the mirror above the dresser, and closed her eyes. She concentrated with all her might on a single word invisible.
She opened her eyes—
—and yelped in shock.
No reflection in the mirror.
“I guess it works.” But she didn’t have to guess. She held her hands in front of her and couldn’t see them. The air in front of her looked as empty as the mirror did.
But still awesome.
Then Nikki thought visible and returned to normal.
Grinning like a cat with her own fish pond, she skipped over to the door and activated the com beside it. “Ok, I’m going back to the Star Queen. I’ll wait till the middle of the night and get Conner. Then we can get out of here.”
Sara Smith would vanish, listed as a passenger on one of the shuttles that came and went from the star liner during its voyage.
Nikki willed herself invisible and hurried through the lower decks of the star liner. Oh, she could definitely get used to this invisibility thing. The potential for mischief—and profit—was unlimited. What else could the talisman do?
She’d have plenty of time later to experiment, but now was not the time.
She found the brig right where the plans indicated it would be. It consisted of two rooms: an outer office, and an inner room with three holding cells. Across the hall was the security control room which was, as she’d expected, busier. Probably still fully staffed.
Her trusty electronic sensor registered two bodies in the brig, Conner and someone—a guard, no doubt—in the outer room.
“All right, let’s see if the Eye can multitask.” She focused on the word sleep and directed it at the guard inside.
A minute later the scanner display indicated the person’s pulse and breathing had both slowed to slumbering levels. When she still couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face, she heaved a huge sigh of relief that she remained invisible. She used the electronic key to unlock the brig door, stole inside then relocked it behind her. Snoring softly, a man slumped over the desk, his head resting on his arms.
Speed was paramount. Someone else could walk in at any instant.
Even though she wanted to get Conner out of trouble, Nikki saw no reason to reveal family secrets to him. This meant not using the Eye at all, and revealing as little as possible about the electronic key.
Nikki activated the electronic key to jam the cameras, then willed herself visible before she went through the connecting door to the cells.
Footsteps shuffled, pacing back and forth in the cell furthest from the door. A murmured, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” was no less vehement for its low volume.
The electronic key would randomize power outages and jam cameras all over the ship, thus not revealing the interference was deliberate and also not leaving a trail of where the person causing them was. With luck, security wouldn’t notice right away that the brig was one of the areas where cameras were going on and off.
She tapped on the metal bars and Conner spun to face her.
“Sara?” Eyes nearly as huge as his grin—God he had a gorgeous smile, and the most gorgeous eyes—he rushed forward and grabbed the bars. Then he drew back and scowled. “What are you doing here? Are you trying to get caught?”
“Thought you might want a ride.”
“Yeah, right. Would you get the hell out of here?” he whispered through clenched teeth. “At least one of us should get away.”
“Relax. Relax.” She pressed the key to the lock and popped open the cell door. “Do you trust me?”
He looked hopeful and indecisive and angry and confused all at the same time.
“Well?” she held out her hand and held her breath.
The electricity flashed through her again, just from looking at him.
They’d have a lot to figure out if he accepted her offer. But no matter what happened—and she wasn’t even sure herself what she expected or wanted to happen—she owed him and wanted to repay that.
Well, she wanted a lot more. But that depended on him. Starting with how Conner responded right now.
He clasped her hand firmly in his own. “Lead on.”