Christina Skye.

To Catch a Thief





CHRISTINA SKYE
is code for romance and adventure!

CODE NAME: BIKINI

A fun, antic read.

Publishers Weekly

When it comes to sexy suspense and high-tech adventure, the Code Name series delivers big time.

Romantic Times BOOKreviews

Fast-paced action, flashes of humor, and futuristic flavor typify this romantic action-adventure. Fans of the Code Name series will enjoy this delicious addition.

Kristin Ramsdell, Library Journal

CODE NAME: BLONDIE

Romantic thrills and adventure from the expert.

Romantic Times BOOKreviews

Skye is terrific at writing fast-paced adventure romancesa tantalizing addition to the compelling Code Name series.

Booklist

CODE NAME: BABY

Thrillingfans should eagerly await the next in the series.

Publishers Weekly

THE DRAYCOTT LEGACY

Christina Skyes delightfully haunting Draycott Abbey talespass the test of time, as they remain some of the better romantic fantasies available.

Harriet Klausner

Christina Skye
To Catch A Thief


Dear Reader,

Some characters you never forget.

Some stories grip you from the first word, locked deep in the heart. For me, that love struck with a great gray cat, a brooding English abbey and its aristocratic guardian ghost, Adrian Draycott.

Ive walked through eight books and two novellas set at the abbey now. Each story brings more secrets and the heady scent of rich heritage roses climbing up tower and parapet.

Dangerous magic.

White-hot passion.

Undying love.

How could any writer resist?

And just to keep the tension hot, Ive brought a rugged Navy SEAL from my Code Name series to the abbey, locked in pursuit of a vicious enemy.

I hope you enjoy the adventure.

See you at the abbey.

Christina

CONTENTS

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER-TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

EPILOGUE

AUTHOR NOTE

Acknowledgments

In a world where distances loom large and the handling of books can become vastly impersonal, one group of people makes a daily, hourly difference in the reading experience.

It is my greatest pleasure to thank those extraordinary people here.

I refer to all the extraordinary booksellers who cherish and protect the children of a writers heart.

You know who you are. But you may not realize how far your influence extends and how deeply you touch the lives of readers every day.

I hope you will accept my heartfelt thanks for all the thousand things you do to care for every new book you unpack from a box or straighten on a shelf.

I also want to send a special nod to Cindi in Wisconsin, Ellen in New Jersey, Sharon in Pennsylvania, Marcy and Tom in Oregon, Beth Anne in Colorado, Sharon in Ohio, Rosemary and Margaret in Australia, Kellie in Hawaii, Terry in Chicago, Penny and Janet in Indiana, Molly in Louisiana, and Phyllis, Kathy and Vicky in Arizona.

You are all totally amazing.

Thats why this ones for you.

To Catch A Thief

PROLOGUE

Draycott Abbey

Sussex, England

May 1622

THE BOOK WAS THE KEY.

All its dangerous secrets lay inside fragile yellow pages. He had to hide these secrets now, while twelve guests slumbered over their spilled port, with wigs askew. Their sleep would not hold forever, and he must act before their greed and suspicion returned.

In the shadows across the elegant room, the Earl of Wetherton mumbled in drunken dreams, his heavy goblet cracking as his wrist sent the glass flying to the floor.

Motionless, Viscount Draycott studied the ornate walls of the house he knew and loved beyond all logic. As the last candle guttered out, the cynical aristocrat stood in a bar of moonlight, cradling a fine leather book. The weight of history pressed down, filling him with excitement.

And finally with dread.

Such a treasure, a notebook from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, carried too many secrets. According to the man who had lost the notebook, it was cursed. Equally cursed was the exquisite piece of art now hidden upstairs in his suite. But the memory of the luminous beauty of the art made the viscount forget the danger.

A sudden movement at the drifting curtains made him slip back into the shadows. Who came in stealth through the darkness?

But the figure was only a great gray cat, slipping up the stairs with black-tipped paws, as quiet as the night. Behind the cat the viscount saw a new maidservant, her eyes wide as she crossed the hall, a basket of freshly folded linens in her arms. A cat and the new maid.

But his worry would not be gone. Men would kill to hold the art of Leonardo da Vinci even if the art was cursed by its creator.

The abbeys lord was a careful man, a generous man, and the weight of duty drove him hard from the moon-touched Long Gallery to the library and to the shadows of a stone staircase above his wine cellars.

The cat was somehow before him as he took the stairs in hurried steps, a lantern held high to mark his way. The worn notebook did not move, cradled at his chest for safety.

Maledetto con gesti e parole.

The words burned like poison in his head.

Cursed by hand and tongue.

Cursed to dream and want, all who hold this book.

Up the stairs a chair fell with a clatter. Drunken voices echoed through the sleeping house, calling his name. No more time.

Quickly he pressed at the wall, opening a niche between stone and mortar. In the small, snug opening he shelved the notebook.

For now, the sketch that had come from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci would hide in his own chamber inside a similar wall recess. He would make a safer hiding spot for it later.

The abbeys lord could do no more. A prize won in a turn of cards, the sketch caught at his heart. Da Vincis hand was clear in every stroke and curve of the Mona Lisas face, all distant grace and soft seduction.

According to the notebook, the sketch was the artists final study before he began his painting. As was his custom, the Italian master often chose chalk to sketch the details of all he would later attempt in oil, and the notebook recorded his process of creation.

Both were priceless. Together they provided an unmatched look into the mind of a genius.

But there was no time for the viscount to linger. Upstairs boots rang out and petulant voices shouted for more port. Draycott felt a sudden disgust for his dissolute guests.

They were not real friends. He knew that any one of them would kill for the notebook and the art it described. The worn leather cover taunted him. His hands shook as he sealed the niche.

Here the notebook and its secrets would rest. With luck his descendants would have the strength to preserve this treasure, keeping it safe along with the priceless sketch it described in such intricate detail, capturing all da Vincis agony of creation.

Frowning, Draycott raised the lantern for one last look. All was sealed. No signs of cracked stone or shifting mortar gave away the notebooks hiding place. By all appearance the wine cellar wall lay untouched, ancient as the house.

It was done.

But the weight of the curse remained.

Maledetto.

Draycott Abbey

Summer 1785

THE WALL WAS EMPTY.

Plaster spilled from a gaping hole, wood beams broken crudely. Blood stained the silk wallpaper where the thiefor thieveshad worked in painful haste. Boot tracks crossed the white snow of fallen plaster, vanishing at the far window, where the curtains fanned out like searching hands.

Adrian Draycott scowled at the hole in the wall. He cursed as he saw the broken recess, the hiding place of his familys da Vinci masterpiece. Now only a carved and gilt frame remained, its pieces discarded on the marble floor.

The thief had come by night, moving straight to this room while Adrian was in London on estate matters. No one had heard the furtive steps. No one had seen the knife that slit the wall and dug to find the hiding place of Leonardos chalk study.

Now the elegant smiling face, accursed in its glory, had vanished. The eighth Viscount Draycott closed his eyes, breathing hard in the shock of the theft. Yet even then he felt something close to relief.

Maledetto con gesti e parole.

The words drifted, twisting like smoke.

Cursed by hand and tongue. Cursed to dream and want.

The still-hidden notebook had recorded Leonardos curse long centuries before. Both sketch and notebook had been stolen from Leonardos studio by a charming servant ever alert to the chance for profit. For his crime the servant had earned the artists curse. So had all others who came in contact with the stolen possessions.

Adrian Draycott ran a hand across his eyes. Well did he know the bitter pains of great loss, of trust betrayed. That pain he kept well hidden beneath a cold, languid facade. He cared for no one and nothingonly his beloved home.

The great gray cat pressed at his boots, tail raised, eyes alert. The viscount bent low, smoothing the warm fur. So here ends both the tale and the curse, my friend. The art is gone, and though I should feel fury, I do not. I amrelieved. Let another poor fool carry the curses weight. The Mona Lisas smile is too cold and enigmatic for my taste.

The cat meowed, brushing against the viscounts boot. I almost wish they had taken the notebook, too. In truth, I care not for this curse it carries.

The cats eyes moved, keen in the spring night. Slowly Adrian turned, facing the open window that marked the thiefs retreat.

Drops of blood stained the broken sill.

Maledetto.

No matter, the viscount muttered, trying to believe his words. The curse cannot hold power here. Not after so many years. It is done. Over.

Adrian Draycott prayed it was so. But the cold wind through the tall windows and the prickle at his neck argued otherwise.

CHAPTER ONE

The Isle of Skye

Scotland

SHE WAS COLD and tired and hungry. Her blistered feet ached and right now all Nell MacInnes wanted was a hot bath and a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea, followed by a warm bed to rest her weary body.

She closed her eyes, listening to the buzz of quiet pub conversation around her. The little inn nestled up against a pristine loch with towering mountains on three sides. The locals were far too polite to intrude on Nells reverie, and when she dumped her mountain gear and backpack on the floor, sinking into a worn wooden chair, no one raised an eyebrow.

It was heaven to be warm and dry after six days of climbing the nearby peaks, battling rain and wind on every ascent. If not for her climbing partner, Nell might have curtailed the trip three days sooner, but Erics enthusiasm was hard to resist. No doubt he would appear from his room upstairs within the hour, after taping his badly sprained ankle.

Warmth began to seep into her bones, as gentle as the low burr of the Scottish voices around her. Scotland was truly heaven, she thought.

And Im telling you it was no such thing as my imagination, Angus McCrae. A grand fish it wasbigger than two arm spans, Ill tell you this.

Over the muted, good-natured argument about a lost fish, Nell heard the pubs front door open. Cold wind snapped through the room as two men entered, scraping booted feet. Where is the American man, Angus? We need the climber called MacInnes.

Nell stiffened at the flawed description. Who wanted her now, when all she craved was one precious nights rest? No one from San Francisco even knew she was in Scotland.

The man at the door wore a muddy parka and broken-in boots. A satphone was gripped at his chest. Weve bad weather up on the hill and I need the Americanassuming the mans as good as Im told.

Nell took a short, wistful look at her half-eaten shepherds pie and the cup of tea, but a request for aid was never refused.

She gulped the rest of her tea and stood up. Im the American named MacInnes.

Youa woman? The man looked startled.

Nell nodded, used to the surprised glances after twelve years of climbing on four continents. How can I help you?

A team of young climbers has gone missing on Blaven, and theres bad weather already, with more due through the night.

Blaven.

Nell recognized the name of the dark peaks that girded the valley on three sides. Theyre on the peak now?

Aye. They were expected down three hours ago and no sign of them yet. We have just now received word that theyre stranded. He raised the satphone, his eyes grim. A German climber saw them scattered out over the south slope like lost sheep. They did not answer his hails, and at least two had the look of being hurt. His voice fell. Badly hurt.

Nell thrust her arms into her waterproof jacket, already making mental notes. How many are in the group and what level of climbing experience? Ill need to know the exact coordinates where they were last seen, too. Even in a blizzard, the GPS would help Nell track those missing.

Im assembling that information now.

Nell unzipped her pack, assessing her resources. Ill need drinking water and dried high-energy food, along with a more extensive first-aid kit.

I will have it prepared for you, Ms. MacInnes, and our thanks to you for your help. My SAR team is understaffed, all but myself sent over to assist in the recovery of plane crash victims on Uist. A terrible thing, that. I only wish I had two more people and Id climb up myself.

No, youre right to stay here. Someone experienced needs to be available to coordinate resources and guide the authorities. Besides, Im familiar with Blaven. She smiled crookedly. I worked SAR here myself nine years ago during my summer vacation.

The man looked pleasantly surprisedand a little relieved. So you know the Cuillin, do you now? Im glad to hear it. There are those who take our Cuillin lightly. Some of them do not live to learn their error, Im afraid.

I wont make that mistake, rest assured. Nells voice was firm. She had seen enough dazed climbers and shattered bodies during her rescue summer to know just how fast conditions could change up on the nearby peaks. Within minutes an exhilarating climb could turn into a zero-visibility nightmare. Whats the weather prediction up there?

Northerly gale force eight. Snow already falling on the summit. Temperatures dropping to minus nine Celsius.

Nell made the conversion to Fahrenheit quickly, taking the bottles of water and zippered food bags that the local SAR coordinator handed her. One more thing. Ruefully, she looked down at her feet. Im afraid Ill need dry socks. These are fairly well soaked after walking down through the rain all day.

Without a word, every man in the now silent pub bent down and began to unlace shoes or unzip boots, hearing her quiet words.

In seconds hand-knit socks appeared on every table.

Nell smiled at this instant generosity.

She cleared her throat. I appreciate your help. What I meant is, I have special climbing socks up in my room. Ill do better with my own gear, you understand.

Of course. The local SAR man said a few words of explanation in Gaelic. The men around Nell nodded. The socks vanished back on hidden feet.

She started toward the stairs to her room, calculating exactly how much she could cram into her pack and what injuries the lost climbers might have incurred. There was only so much possibility for medical intervention on the top of a mountain with limited supplies.

One word, miss. Your partnerhe will be going with you, will he?

Nell shook her head. Not with a sprained ankle, he wont. But Eric will stay in contact. He can help you down here with backup arrangements. Ill tell him the situation.

Nell knew her friend would insist on joining her, sprained ankle or not, but hed be no help with an injury that had kept him limping for most of the day. Shed have to make the climb alone. She didnt need any amateurs slowing her down.

Ill be down in two minutes. If someone can drive me up to the trailhead at the end of the loch, it will save twenty minutes.

A Land Rover is already waiting for you, miss. The local rescue coordinator ran a hand through his hair. Id much prefer to go up the hill with you, truth be told. Its a fair nasty stretch across the south slope in weather like this.

Ill be fine. Nell was calm, with years of climbing experience, focused on planning her route. She was used to facing the worst. Climbing a rugged peak in nasty weather wasnt half as bad as the other shocks that life had thrown her.

HE WATCHED her shoulder the heavy pack and then adjust both padded straps, working with the intense focus of someone used to carrying heavy weight well into the pain zone.

The woman clearly knew what she was doing, Dakota thought, slouched out of sight inside a dusty delivery truck parked up the road from the inn. The bug in her backpack was working perfectly, allowing him clear access to every word she said. So far shed made no slips. Her conversation with her climbing partner had been full of good-natured bantering and reminiscences of earlier climbs.

No talk of art theft or organized terrorist activities, the Navy SEAL thought cynically.

His orders were absolutely clear. Close surveillance and assessment of all contacts made by Nell MacInnes. Shed done something to land on the governments highest priority watch list.

Better than anyone, Dakota Smith knew that SEALs didnt get called up for aimless threats. Nell MacInnes was up to her slender neck in trouble.

With or without her fathers help, she was suspected of participating in the theft of one of the most valuable pieces of art ever to enter the National Gallery. Dakotas job was to find out who she was working with and locate the stolen Renaissance masterpiece before it vanished forever, traded through a shadow network of international criminals, sold to finance the activities of an elusive terrorist group active on American soil.

The SEALs eyes narrowed on the womans back as she climbed into a battered Land Rover, accompanied by the head of the local search-and-rescue volunteer team. Dakota wondered what made her tick, what drove her back out into a pounding storm after six days of strenuous climbing. He doubted it was simple selflessness. No, he figured that Nell MacInnes enjoyed walking on the edge, tasting danger. She looked like a classic thrill seeker, which would also explain her involvement in a complicated, high-stakes robbery.

Not greed. She didnt drive a late-model Maserati or own a string of houses. Her apartment back in San Francisco was neat but small, and her only hobby appeared to be climbing. Yet appearances could be the most unreliable thing in the world, Dakota knew.

Still, he wondered about that brief note of resignation hed heard in Nells voice back at the pub. The confidence had faded, along with the high energy, and she had sounded tired and worried, as if she genuinely cared about the missing climbers.

Forget about the targets emotions, a voice warned flatly as Dakota pulled onto the road, following the Land Rover at a careful distance. Hed track her up the brooding slopes of Blaven and make certain she came down in one piece. But hed break his cover to save the other climbers only if it was absolutely necessary, mindful of his orders to stay well under the radar until all Nell MacInness shadowy contacts were bagged and tagged. The mission came first.

Always.

After parking down the slope from the small trailhead, Dakota pulled on an all-weather parka and a fully stocked backpack, then fingered his shortwave radio. His contact would be waiting for an update. Teague, are you there?

Yo. Izzy Teagues voice was clear, despite an edge of static. Ive got the topo map on the screen in front of me. I checked with SAR and got the coordinates. Youll have a straight ascent for an hour, followed by a fairly strenuous climb through shifting rock when you near the south face. A chopper is on its way over from the mainland, but the weather may prevent a landing until tomorrow.

So Im on my own, Dakota said calmly. Fine with me. I dont need anyone slowing me down or asking questions.

Watch out for yetis up there, Izzy said wryly. Ill keep a bottle of Glenlivet on ice for you.

You do that. Alpha out.

The dark face of Blaven was veiled in clouds as Nell set off up the rocky trail. The Land Rover headed down to the inn. The first wet flakes of gale-driven snow lashed at Dakotas face as he started up toward Blavens brooding darkness, Nell already out of sight before him.

FOR SOME REASON she couldnt shake the sense that she was being followed. For the third time Nell stopped, peering through fingers of clouds, looking for other climbers behind her.





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