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The portrait of Fiona MacDuff shone on the wall of the private gallery like a star lighting the darkness.
Russell Davron stood for an instant focusing the beam of his flashlight at the painting, admiring the technique of the artist as well as the beautiful face of the woman he had managed to capture with such accuracy. The long, wavy red hair, the hazel eyes shining with such vitality and humor, the hint of recklessness in the curve of her lips. Fiona MacDuff had been dead for centuries, but she looked as if she could step out of that portrait and take life by storm, molding it to whatever she chose. It was no wonder that John MacDuff, Earl of MacDuff’s Run, chose to keep her portrait here at the gallery of his primary residence rather than at one of his other estates. While researching the painting, Davron had wondered why MacDuff hadn’t sold it during the years when he’d been tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. Of course, the painting was unsigned, which made it less valuable, but somehow Davron doubted if that had even made a difference to him. Because even now after MacDuff had managed to save his family fortunes, that portrait still had a place of honor in this castle. In good times and poor, the earl hadn’t been able to let his Fiona go. Davron was beginning to see why…
“Why the hell are you just standing there?” Stefano Luca hissed as he came up behind him. “Take the painting and get out of here. That relief sentry should be reporting in another ten minutes. He’s going to wonder where the other guard has gone. If you’ve made trouble for me, you’ll pay, Davron.”
Davron felt a chill as he moved quickly toward the painting. He had a very good idea what payment Luca would demand if anything went wrong. Luca wasn’t the same man who had recruited him all those years ago. Or perhaps he was and Davron had chosen to ignore it because it was safer and more profitable to close his eyes. “I only took a minute,” he whispered. “I’m sure you disposed of that guard’s body with your usual skill. We’ll be gone long before they find him.” He carefully took down the painting. He probably should have been more cautious. These days it wasn’t safe to argue or displease Luca in any way when he was this on edge. It would be wise to try to soothe him. “And I was only appreciating our lovely Fiona. I’m sorry I argued with you when you told me that she was worth retrieving. I was thinking only of the monetary value.” He didn’t add that this was also what Luca was usually concerned about. “Your eye is obviously better than mine. You must have seen something else in her.”
“Stop talking. Just get it out of here.” Luca was stepping closer to the empty wall where the portrait had been hung. “Stash the painting in the truck. I’ll be there in a minute. I just have one more thing to do here.”
And Davron had an idea what that last thing would be. Luca was carrying the stainless-steel container he had lately started to bring to every job like this. But it was no longer empty as it had been in the truck. He jerked his eyes away from the canister. Well, what did he care? Luca might be a bit mad, but he’d furnished him with a fine living for years and Davron had learned to live with the ugliness and fear that went along with it. All Davron had to do was take care of business, obey orders, disable all the security systems at the galleries, and act as a beast of burden when Luca made his choices. It seldom involved anything in the least violent. Luca liked to handle that himself.
As he had done tonight.
But Davron couldn’t resist looking curiously over his shoulder as he moved quickly across the gallery toward the door.
It was no surprise. There was usually blood these days, Davron knew. Luca liked to leave a signature. This time he had a brush in his hand and was dipping it into the container and then painting the wall with a huge bloody cross. It was probably the blood of the guard he’d stabbed outside the gallery. Davron had wondered why Luca had sent him ahead to grab the painting while he cut the man’s throat.
He’d needed time to take the blood.
The cross was finished now, and Luca should be following him soon. But he wasn’t coming. He’d reached into his pocket and was pulling out something and fastening it to the center of the bloody cross.
It was a photograph, Davron saw in surprise. This was a new addition to Luca’s usual routine. Davron couldn’t make out the details of the photo from across the gallery but it was definitely the photograph of a woman.
A woman with long, wavy hair that he thought might be as red as Fiona MacDuff’s in this portrait he was carrying.
But Davron couldn’t really be sure with all that blood flowing over the photograph…
* * *
“Wake up, Jane.”
It was Michael’s soft whisper, Jane MacGuire realized drowsily as she opened her eyes. It was still dim in the tent, though she could see a slit of daylight at the opening. Her brother, Michael, was no longer curled up in his own sleeping bag across the tent but sitting next to her, fully dressed and with legs crossed. Was something wrong? Probably not. She could see that his chestnut-brown hair was a little rumpled, but those amber-colored eyes were sparkling with the boundless vitality usually present only in a ten-year-old. Still, better check. “Hi. You okay?”
“Sure.” He lit his flashlight and smiled cheerfully down at her as he saw that she was fully awake. “You were just restless so I thought I should wake you up. Did you have a bad dream?”
“I don’t think so.” She yawned, sat up, and looked at her watch. “I don’t remember if I did.” But it was six thirty and almost time to get up anyway. All the volunteers and students participating in this archaeological dig at the grounds of Kendrick Castle usually met down at the mess tent for breakfast at seven thirty. Michael always looked forward to mixing with them and finding out what they’d discovered the day before. It had become almost a ritual during the three weeks she and her brother had spent together sharing the work of the dig and the other experiences connected with it.
But that wasn’t supposed to happen today.
She frowned as she gazed at Michael’s jeans, blue T-shirt, and white tennis shoes. “Hey, why are you dressed to go to work? Your mom and dad are going to be here this afternoon. And after we have tea, they’re going to take you back to London for the weekend. Did you forget about it?”
He grinned mischievously. “Gee. Yeah, that’s what happened, Jane. I just can’t keep track of everything on my social calendar. It didn’t occur to you that that’s hours away from now and I can hang out with my friends and maybe do some digging?”
Of course he hadn’t forgotten. Michael never forgot anything. And sometimes what was behind that little boy’s sunny smile was not at all what it seemed. “Don’t be a smart aleck.” She reached out and tousled his hair. “You wake me up and then make fun of me?” Her gaze was suddenly searching his face. “And, as I said, I don’t remember having a restless night.” She paused. “Did you have a nightmare, Michael?”
“I never have nightmares. Maybe I was a little restless.” His smile faded. “Because when I woke up, I got to thinking that it would be great if you could come back to your apartment with us instead of staying here at the dig for an extra day. Why couldn’t you do that?”
“Because I have work to do.” But she could do it if she chose. She had been very tempted. This opportunity to see Eve and Joe would be very brief, and then they’d be gone again. They had been in Maldara, in Africa, for the last four weeks because of Eve’s forensic sculpting project. Eve Duncan was one of the foremost forensic sculptors in the world, and this job had been both difficult and heartrending for her. Not to mention taking place in a country recently torn by civil war that was a hazard in itself. That had been the primary reason Joe Quinn, Eve’s husband, had insisted on putting his own career as a police detective on hold to stay with her. They were only returning for this weekend visit because they hadn’t liked the idea of leaving Michael for this long. Then they would have to return to Maldara for another two weeks for Eve to finish her reconstructions before they’d be able to stop by here again to pick up Michael and return home to Atlanta.
And then Jane would lose them all for heaven knows how long again, she thought glumly. Because her paintings were principally sold by a gallery in London, she’d rented an apartment there and didn’t get back to Atlanta nearly as often as she’d like. Which meant she didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with her family. Every minute with them was precious to her.
But Eve and Joe’s time with Michael was also precious after all those weeks away from him, she reminded herself. She ignored Michael’s pleading expression and forced herself to shake her head. “I haven’t finished the sketches of the dig that I promised to give to Lady Kendrick to put in their advertising brochures. She needs them, Michael. Kendrick Castle is like dozens of other properties here in Wales that are struggling to keep from going bankrupt. Lady Kendrick’s made a big success of this architectural dig, but a little publicity will help her. My working just one more day on the sketches should do it.” She got to her knees and started gathering up her clothes to take down to the shower room in the common area of the dig. “I promise I’ll be there in London tomorrow. Besides, don’t you think that your mom and dad deserve to have you to themselves for at least one day? There’s a slight chance they might have missed you. After all, you’re their only son.” She added teasingly, “Though I don’t know why they’d ever miss a brat like you.”
He didn’t return the smile. “But they’ve missed you, too.” He frowned. “You do that all the time, Jane. You’re always telling me how important family is and then you take a step back as if you don’t belong. I don’t like it.”
“Don’t be silly. What an imagination.” She looked over her shoulder. “I just have a few things to—” She broke off as she saw his expression. She hadn’t realized that he had noticed her slight withdrawal every now and then. But she should have known that he would see and be bewildered by it. He was the most loving child she had ever known, and his instincts were remarkable. Okay, she had always tried to be honest with him and she wouldn’t let this be an exception. She turned to face him. “We are family and that is what’s important,” she said quietly. “But sometimes family members come together at different times and periods in their lives and it makes them different, too. I came to Eve and Joe when I was about your age and they took me in off the streets and gave me a home. But I’d already gone through too much to ever be a child again.” She met his eyes. “Yet that didn’t stop me from being able to be their friend and it didn’t change the love I felt for them. It just made it a little different.” She smiled gently. “But then you were born and you gave your mom and dad the son they’d never had and me a brother. We all had you from the very beginning. Win-win situation.”
He shook his head. “Not if you keep stepping back.”
Good heavens, he was stubborn. “I just want them to enjoy every minute they have with you this weekend. Sometimes life seems to fly by, and your mom and dad work so hard. Your experience with them is totally different from mine, and I want you to all explore it for this little while.” She smiled. “Hey, I can afford to step back and give my friends and family a little extra time together.” She reached out and touched his cheek with her index finger. “When you’ve all given me so much. Understand?”
He nodded soberly. “I always understood, Jane.” He made a face. “But all that does sound pretty sappy, and you’re wrong. You should go with us. I don’t want to leave you here alone.”
“I won’t be alone. Not all the volunteers go home on weekends. There will still be plenty of campers here.”
He kept frowning. “It’s not the same.”
“No, it won’t be. I’ll miss you, but I might actually get some work done. And you’ll have a terrific time with Eve and Joe tonight.” She gave him a quick hug and jumped to her feet. “Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll hog all the attention the minute I walk into that apartment.” She undid the ties on the door and opened the tent to the sunlight. “Now let me get dressed so we can go down to the mess tent and have breakfast. Can’t you see it’s going to be a beautiful day?”
Michael looked outside at the ancient towering castle in the distance, then at the stone bridge over the brook that led to the slowly waking camp—a veritable tent city on the hills surrounding it. He slowly nodded. “Yeah, maybe.” His brow was still wrinkled in thought. “Didn’t you tell me that Seth Caleb was going to come and stay with us here for a few days? Why don’t you ask him to come down today? He could keep you company until it’s time for you to go to London tomorrow and maybe come with you.”
She stiffened. Where on earth had that come from? Michael hadn’t mentioned Seth Caleb since she’d told him a few weeks ago that he’d been forced to cancel his plans to visit. She hadn’t told him that she’d been profoundly relieved to send a message to Caleb and tell him there was no need for him to come after all. She’d promised Eve she’d ask Caleb here to act as bodyguard to protect Michael from a kidnap threat that had not materialized. “You can’t just drag Caleb down here from Scotland because it suits you, Michael. I know you like him, but he has a life.”
“He’d come if you asked him.” Michael was still looking out at the castle. “And I bet Mom and Dad would be glad to see him. Mom likes him a lot. She told me once that he’d saved her life when she was pregnant with me. He probably did all that really neat stuff he can do with controlling the blood flow in—”
“Caleb can be very appealing,” she interrupted to stop the flood of words. She hadn’t even known that Michael was aware of exactly how rare a gift Caleb had. She was sure that Eve had not gone into details to Michael about Caleb’s rather bizarre abilities. Had Caleb told the boy himself? Possibly. You could never tell what Caleb would do. Or maybe Michael had just sensed it in his unique way, which was as unsettling as it was accurate. “But you don’t impose on people because they’re interesting to be around.” She gave him a gentle nudge. “Go on down to the mess tent while I go shower and get dressed. I’ll meet you in fifteen minutes.”
“He wouldn’t think you were imposing.” Michael was moving reluctantly toward the door. “He really likes to be around you. I can tell. And he’s lots of fun, don’t you think?”
She looked away from him. “‘Fun’ is not exactly the word I’d use.”
Blazing heat. Electricity. Sexual eroticism in all its forms. She could almost see Caleb standing naked before her. She drew a deep breath. Don’t think of him. Difficult. When he always seemed to be—
Her phone was ringing. Saved by the bell. She glanced down at the ID.
Michael had stopped at the door and turned hopefully back to her. “Caleb?”
“Did you think wishing would make it so?” She made a face at him. “But at least you’re in the right country. It’s Lord MacDuff calling from MacDuff’s Run. I haven’t talked to him for over six months. I thought he was still in Spain.” She punched the ACCESS button. “Hello, MacDuff. When did you get home?”
“Just a little while ago. I flew in early this morning.” MacDuff’s tone was very casual. “I thought it was time I’d touched base with old friends and I thought of you. How are you, Jane?”
“Fine. I’ve spent the last few weeks at a dig here in Wales with my brother, Michael. Eve and Joe have been in Africa while Eve did several reconstructions, and I grabbed the chance to take Michael to this castle in Wales. We’ve been playing in the dirt and searching for ancient Roman artifacts. It reminded me a little of that dig we did at Cira’s castle in the Highlands.” She chuckled. “And it’s been almost as unproductive. We should have known your very extraordinary ancestress wouldn’t hide her treasure in such an ordinary place. The Roman troops here in Wales were much more boring, and we’re not expecting treasure. But searching for it has been great fun, and Michael and I both learned something from doing it.”
“That’s good. Even if those little bits of artifacts you probably found aren’t on the scale of our Cira’s treasure, knowledge rules, doesn’t it? So are you both going back to Atlanta soon?”
“Michael will be going back in a few weeks with Eve and Joe. Then I’ll have to go back to London and get ready to do an Italian tour. I spent most of the last six months painting in the Italian lake country. They seem to like my work in Rome.”
“They like you everywhere. I bought one of your landscapes in Portugal. Though I prefer your Scottish paintings.”
She chuckled. “Of course you do. You’re a Highlander.”
“Seth Caleb isn’t a Highlander, and he likes your Scottish landscapes, too.” He paused. “Is he in Wales with you?”
Curious…She was silent a moment before she answered, “No. I haven’t seen Caleb for months.” And this was not like MacDuff. He was a consummate sophisticate who would normally never be so rude as to display this curiosity. Particularly since Jane was sure she hadn’t succeeded in hiding from him how tumultuous those last months with Caleb had been for her. He knew her too well. “Is everything okay, MacDuff?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” he asked lightly. “I’m home here at MacDuff’s Run. It’s my favorite place in the world, and there’s no place I value more. Just wanted to check in with you. Take care, Jane.”
The next moment, she realized he’d pressed DISCONNECT.
Strange…She slowly lowered her phone. The call had been short and filled with questions. He’d done a good job of seeming casual, but she still felt as if she’d been interrogated.
“Is Lord MacDuff okay?” Michael asked.
“He said he is,” Jane said. “He likes being back at MacDuff’s Run.” But that had been a little unusual, too, that he’d called this early on the same day he’d gotten back to the estate instead of settling in and waiting until later in the day or even tomorrow. “He’s always loved the Run. I can’t blame him, I really like it, too. It’s like stepping back in time into a scene from Rob Roy.”
“But you’re not going there to see him, are you?” Michael asked quickly. “Who needs Rob Roy? You need to stay here. After we come back from London, we’ll just ask Caleb to come visit so that you won’t be bored. That will be much better.”
“What?” She stared at him. “You’re being weird. Where did that come from? I haven’t been bored for a minute since we’ve been here. I think we’re a great team.” She frowned. “I thought you thought so, too. Haven’t you been having a good time? Was I wrong?”
“No.” He was suddenly across the tent and sliding his arms around her waist, hugging her. “It’s been awesome. You’re awesome. I just didn’t want you to have to put up with a kid like me for the last couple of weeks you’re here. Like I said, Caleb is kind of fun.”
There was that word again. She immediately crushed down the previous vision it was bringing to mind. “I’m very happy to be putting up with you.” She cradled his face in her two hands to look down at him. “It’s always too long between visits for me.” She gave him another hug and then kissed the tip of his nose. “Caleb would just get in the way.”
“But you won’t go to Scotland to see Lord MacDuff?”
“No, I will not.” She chuckled. “For your information, I wasn’t invited. Not everyone wants my company, Michael. You’re stuck with me.”
“Good.” But he was smiling mischievously again as he backed away from her. “Caleb would want your company, though. And I bet he’d like to go to the dig with us and see how all those old Romans lived. He thinks stuff like that is cool, and he’d be great at it. I could call him for you.”
“Michael.” She was trying to hold on to her patience. “Believe me, Caleb would not find anything interesting about how those ancient Romans lived. And you might think he’s perfect, but he’s not great at everything.”
“Well, maybe not everything.” His lips were still twitching as he turned away. “Just a thought. I’ll see you at breakfast.” He ran out of the tent.
She shook her head ruefully as she reached for her toothbrush. Lord, she was going to miss him when he went back home to Atlanta. Yes, living with Michael was filled with all sorts of challenges, but he was also loving and brimming with curiosity and humor, and she was crazy about him.
But he was very persistent, and that persistence had fastened on Caleb this morning. She’d thought she’d squashed it before she got the call from MacDuff, but that only seemed to have revived it. Because he definitely hadn’t wanted her to go to MacDuff’s Run. Oh, well, not to worry. Once he was with Eve and Joe, maybe he’d forget everything but them.
No, he wouldn’t. Sure, that was what an ordinary kid might be expected to do. But Michael didn’t forget anything; he just filed it away and brought it forward when he found a use for it. As he’d done when he’d brought the conversation back to Caleb to try to keep her from going to MacDuff’s Run.
It was odd that it had seemed to be so important to him…
* * *
“She’s fine,” MacDuff said curtly as he turned to Scotland Yard inspector Rob Tovarth, who was standing at the gallery entrance. “And I could tell she knows nothing about this particular bit of nastiness.” He gestured at the bloody wall. “I shouldn’t have even let you talk me into calling her. Jane is too honest not to blurt something out if she’d had even a hint about the Fiona being missing. It’s crazy to assume she’d have anything to do with the theft of my painting or the killing of that guard.”
“You’ll forgive me if I call your attention to the fact that she has very much to do with it, my lord,” Inspector Tovarth said mildly. “You said that Jane MacGuire is the image of Fiona MacDuff, the woman in the painting.” He nodded at the photograph pinned in the middle of the cross painted on the wall. “And her photo is hanging there instead of your painting. I’d argue that there had to be a reason why any killer would do that. It was only sensible to bring her into it.” He shook his head. “But may I remind you I also asked you to bring her here to be interrogated?”
“She’s in Wales with her younger brother. There’s no reason to involve her,” MacDuff said as he strode over to the wall where Fiona’s portrait had previously hung. “The bastard was fond of blood, wasn’t he?” he muttered as he gazed at the photograph. “Shock value?”
“Probably. But he definitely wanted you to make a connection between Jane MacGuire and the painting. What is she to you? A relation?”
“Friend. I’ve known Jane for years. She was only seventeen when I first set eyes on her.” His lips twisted. “Though I admit I’ve tried to claim her as a relative since that first meeting. I’d lived with that painting all my life, and after one look at Jane I knew that she was our kin. I even offered to send detectives to investigate and establish a claim for her.” He grimaced. “But Jane would have no part of it. She’d been adopted by people she loved when she was only ten and she said that she had no need of any other family.” He shrugged. “I was a bit insulted at the time. Not many people would turn down a connection to the MacDuffs.”
“Aye, very odd.” Tovarth nodded. “But people have a habit of changing as time goes on. There’s always the chance she might have later decided she wanted the portrait.”
- "Fast-paced... The magnetic relationship between Jane and Seth adds heat to the tense plot."—Publishers Weekly
- "A satisfying balance between electrifying action and emotional intensity."—Booklist
- "Fans will want to read THE PERSUASION to catch up on these characters' lives and enjoy the thrill of the hunt as everyone works together to bring down Luca."—BookReporter.com
- "If you love a mystery that will hold your interest in bloody hands; a strong tie between a couple who aren't sure what to do with each other but can't let go; danger, drama, and intrigue then you have to get your hands on THE PERSUASION."—FreshFiction.com
- "Dive into the explosive world of Iris Johansen, where villains get exactly what they deserve and the good guys - eventually - win the day. That's a world I want to live in!"—Tami Hoag, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "There's no one like Iris Johansen!"—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author
- "A master storyteller, Iris Johansen brings characters to life like no other. A tension filled novel...her plot is intricate, her characters compelling. SMOKESCREEN is great fun."—Robert Dugoni, New York Times bestselling author
- "Just by seeing the Iris Johansen name....you know [it] will be an explosive, unforgettable story."—Suspense Magazine
- "Johansen keeps readers on the edge of their seats."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Jan 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Grand Central Publishing