The Cherbourg Jewels

Chapter One

The minute hand on her watch slipped six degrees closer to vertical. One more minute and she’d be late. Not today, she thought. Please, not today.

Ella Wilcox hefted her briefcase in one hand and a to-go cappuccino in the other. She watched each of the floor indicators light up and glow briefly as the marble-paneled elevator rose to the top of the building, to the office of Sébastien Cherbourg IV. She gulped the cappuccino nervously, hoping the caffeine would give her the energy boost she needed to close the deal.

This has to work, she thought. There’s no other way.

The job was well within her skill level, and she had no doubt she was qualified. Still, she’d never met a member of the Cherbourg family in person before. One of the wealthiest families in San Francisco, the Cherbourgs had contributed most of the California Pacific Museum’s endowment. Without their generous support, the museum could never have afforded to hire her as an independent gem historian to catalog, research, and certify their collection.

Ella took another sip of the cappuccino and tried to calm the nerves fluttering in her stomach. She’d made sales pitches before, but never one like this. It didn’t help to know that Sébastien Cherbourg had a reputation for being impatient, overbearing, and downright ruthless when it came to running his family’s empire.

She glanced at her watch.

She was thirty seconds from being late.

Each floor indicator seemed to light up more slowly than the last, as if they were punishing her for what she was about to do. “Oh come on,” she muttered, tapping her toe anxiously. “Throw me a bone, here.”

If she got off on the wrong foot with Sébastien by arriving late, he might not choose her for the job. If he didn’t choose her for the job, she wouldn’t get to see the fabulous Cherbourg jewel collection. If she didn’t get to see the collection, she’d never know if it contained any of the stones that had been stolen from her father’s workshop.

She had to get access to that vault.

There was no other way.

“Wish me luck, Dad,” she whispered.

It had been eighteen years since that night, the one that took her father away from her forever, but she still talked to him as if he were right next to her. She wanted him to know that she’d never give up. That she still hoped to find his killers and the precious gems they’d stolen from him.

Even now, all these years later, it was hard to think of him without breaking down. Instead of playing outside after school as a girl, she’d joined him in his workshop as he restored and appraised antique jewelry. She’d listened carefully as he showed her how to tighten the setting of a stone in an old ring, or solder a broken prong back into place. As he worked, he’d regaled her with stories of long-dead emperors and kings and princes and princesses, the ones who had worn the most famous and priceless jewels in history. Her father had been her window into a magical world—at least, he had been until he’d been brutally murdered.

Almost two decades later, she wasn’t any closer to discovering who had ordered the robbery or who had pulled the trigger that night. But her work as a gem historian had given her access to the vaults of the country’s rich and famous. With every new commission, she hoped to find some of the stones stolen from her father’s workshop. And when I do, she thought, I’ll have a way to trace the people responsible for taking his life and ruining mine.

The elevator slowed to a crawl and she knew she’d be face to face with Sébastien Cherbourg in just a moment. She brushed away a tear before it could ruin her makeup. Everything hinged on getting this job—and to do that, she had to impress a man famous for being impossible to impress. Smeared eyeliner and tears wouldn’t help her. Only a cool, collected façade would get her in the door.

“I won’t let you down, Dad,” she said. “I promise.”

The elevator doors slid open. Ella glanced from side to side, noting the marble-topped receptionist’s desk and the leather club chairs lined up against the walls. She forced a confident smile to her lips and marched up to greet the receptionist. “Good morning!” she said cheerfully. “I have an appointment with Mr. Cherbourg.”

“You’re late,” the receptionist said. “He’s been waiting for you.”

Ella steeled herself and took a deep breath. This was not the way she wanted to start the day. You can do this, she told herself. Just get in there and give him a run for his money. Show him you mean business.

Behind the reception desk were two double doors, with Sébastien Cherbourg’s name on them in small gold letters. She ignored the visitor’s badge lying on the desk and swept past the receptionist, straight through the double doors. “Good morning, Mr. Cherbourg,” she said, closing the doors behind her. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve done a great deal of work for the museum and everyone there speaks very highly of your family.”

But the dark-haired man in the office wasn’t paying any attention to her.

He stood with his back to the door, looking a dozen stories down at the busy streets below. Silhouetted against the floor-to-ceiling glass, he cut an imposing figure—tall, broad shoulders, muscular biceps, and a narrow waist. His charcoal gray suit was exquisitely tailored, accommodating his muscular frame yet emphasizing his toned physique.

He didn’t turn to greet her.

When he spoke, his voice was cold and hard. “Ms. Wilcox, you are two minutes late. When I asked you to arrive at eight o’clock sharp, I meant it.”

Ella felt her cheeks burn. “Then let’s pretend we’ve spent two minutes on pleasantries and call it even.”

“I never engage in pleasantries. They’re for people who don’t know how to ask for what they want. Do you know how to ask for what you want, Ms. Wilcox?”

She glared at his back. I know how to tell you you’re a jerk, she thought.

Sébastien continued without waiting for her reply. “While I waited for you, I watched a woman standing on the sidewalk below. She stood outside this building for at least five minutes, staring at a handful of photographs. She’d look at one of the pictures, mutter something to herself, and then glance up toward my office. I only noticed her because you were late and because she had on the brightest red coat I’ve ever seen. But I have to tell you, she absolutely fascinated me. It was like she had to give herself a pep talk just to find the courage to enter the building. Why do you suppose that is?”

Ella looked down at her scarlet coat. “Not a clue,” she said quickly.

“Are you sure about that?” he replied, turning to face her.

Ella’s stomach clenched. Sébastien Cherbourg IV was, without a doubt, one of the handsomest men in the city. She’d seen his photo in philanthropic journals, but they failed to do him justice. The sharp planes of his cheekbones, the perfectly sculpted chin, the olive cast to his skin…his French heritage had given him looks and money, but apparently manners had been left out of the equation.

She took a deep, calming breath. She didn’t have money or a mile-long pedigree, but she was good at her job and no one had a right to make her feel otherwise.

She stared him down as best she could. “What you see as hesitation, Mr. Cherbourg, is actually preparation. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and I didn’t get there by asking for what I want. I got there by earning it, every step of the way.”

Sébastien Cherbourg raised one thick, dark eyebrow. “Is that all, Ms. Wilcox?”

“No,” she said. “I look great in red. This coat is fantastic.”

A slow smile graced his full lips, revealing perfect white teeth. The expression made him look almost friendly, and she wondered what he looked like when he smiled by choice. “All right, Ms. Wilcox. I’ll overlook your tardiness if we can get down to business.”

“Of course.” Ella sat in one of the brocade-covered salon chairs pulled up to his polished mahogany desk. On top of the desk, she saw a laptop, an ormolu clock, a gold-plated pen, and a letter opener. Not a single picture, not a single clue as to who this man really was. The butterflies in her stomach began to flutter once more.

As soon as she’d taken a seat, Sébastien walked around the desk and leaned casually against it with one hip. “Ms. Wilcox,” he said.

“Yes?” she answered, craning her neck to look up at him.

“Tell me why I should give you this job.”

She blinked rapidly and tried to call her resume points to mind. It dawned on her that she’d given away the upper hand by sitting down. She’d thought she was taking control, but now he was using her initiative against her. He was forcing her to look up at him, a psychological trick to reinforce his status and put her in her place.

Oh, no you don’t, she thought. Two can play at that game.

Ella stood up and looked him in the eye. “I have a very good working relationship with the directors of the California Pacific Museum. The director of the natural history annex has recommended me specifically for this job. For each of the museum’s last three rock and gem exhibitions, I’ve verified the provenance of every gem on loan.”

Sébastien frowned, forming three parallel wrinkles on his forehead. “Why do they need to hire someone to do that at all? They should be doing it themselves. I’ve given them enough money over the years.”

Ella tilted her head at him. “You have no idea what I do, do you?”

“I’ve never needed to,” he said dryly. “Gem historians don’t have a damn thing to do with running a successful import/export company.”

“But they have everything to do with the fair purchase of exotic or famous jewels,” she said. “And I understand that’s one of your museum’s primary objectives. Mr. Cherbourg, here’s the bottom line…if you want the exhibition of your family’s jewel collection to proceed as planned, you need to hire an independent contractor to verify the legal sale and provenance of every jewel that’ll be shown on the museum’s property. The museum’s insurance requires it, and they aren’t allowed to perform the audit themselves. Surely you’ve heard of a little thing called ‘conflict of interest’?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “I can accept the fact that I have to waste my money and hire a paper pusher to tell me what I already know—that my family acquired its collection honestly. I just don’t understand why it has to be you.”

“It doesn’t,” she said. “But I have a strong track record with the museum. I’ve debunked fakes, pinpointed forgeries, and stopped sales that involved illegally obtained diamonds. Gemologists can tell you about the color, cut, and clarity of a stone, but I’m a gem historian. If you think you have Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings or the queen of Romania’s tiara, I can tell you if you’re right.”

“How?” he asked, narrowing his thick-lashed olive-green eyes.

She stopped, wondering whether to tell him why any of it mattered. Would he even believe her if she did? No, she decided, she could only tell him what he needed to know. “The truth is that I grew up around gems and jewelry. My father repaired and restored antique jewelry. So did his father, and his father before him. It would take a long time to learn what I’ve been absorbing my whole life. That, Mr. Cherbourg, is why you should hire me.”

Ella finished her sales pitch and looked up at him. It was almost impossible to stay cool knowing he was searching her face, looking for a sign of weakness. She found herself wanting any sort of advantage she could get, including the one that came from being a woman. She wondered if it would do any good to flick her hair, lick her lips, or adopt a sexy stance that showed off her curves. If he noticed, would that help her get the job…or prejudice him against her?

She decided to fight those instincts with the only weapon she had left: the memory of what Joey had done to her. She’d learned the hard way that lowering her guard only led to disappointment and pain. She didn’t have the strength to go through that again—not for Sébastien Cherbourg and not for any man. She’d just have to hope her resume and letters of recommendation were enough.

“I see,” Sébastien said.

But nothing in his tone of voice gave her a clue as to whether he’d actually hire her. She decided to press on. “I have letters of reference from the museum’s provost and the special events coordinator. They’ve both worked with me numerous times over the past few years.”

“I believe you.”

Then what’s the holdup? she wondered. Just hire me so I can get inside your family’s vault!

Sébastien Cherbourg uncrossed his arms and rolled up his sleeves, revealing forearms that were strong and tan. She wondered where he found the time to get outside, in the midst of running one of the country’s largest and most successful corporations. “What sort of time frame are you expecting?” he asked. “As you know, the exhibition is less than 72 hours away. I didn’t know until last night that our prior appraisal wasn’t valid. It was done more than ten years ago, and the museum’s insurance company won’t sign off on the exhibition unless we update it.”

She nodded. “I can work quickly, Mr. Cherbourg. You may not need to postpone the exhibition more than a week.”

Instantly, the famous Cherbourg temper reared its ugly head. He narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath. “A week? I’ve been doing publicity for six months! This exhibition is happening on time if I have to fly in every gemologist from here to Indonesia!”

Ella bit back a sharp reply. It was just like a Cherbourg to assume the world was at his beck and call, that he could bend everyone else to his will. She wanted to tell him to stuff it, that she wouldn’t work for him if she were starving and he held the key to the last grocery store on earth.

But her pride wasn’t what mattered most in this situation.

She had to see what was in that vault.

If any of her father’s missing stones had ended up there, she’d know the Cherbourgs were involved in his death—or that they knew someone who was. If she didn’t pull this off, she might never get a second chance to access that vault.

She could see Sébastien’s face harden and knew her window of opportunity was closing. “Twenty-four hours!” she heard herself cry. “I’ll have it done in twenty-four hours!”

Sébastien’s green eyes sparkled. “That’s more like it, Miss Wilcox. So glad we could come to a mutual agreement.”

Ella smiled weakly, her stomach aflutter with uncertainty and fear. What have I done? she thought.

***

Sébastien watched Ella Wilcox walk out of his office, heels clacking violently against his polished marble floors. She’d put up a decent fight, but had finally given him what he wanted: assurance that his exhibition would go forward as planned.

No one at the museum had thought to warn him that she was so difficult to deal with—or so distracting.

It had all started when she barged into his office. No one had ever barged into his office. His receptionist, Hannah, kept visitors on a short leash, but Ella had taken control immediately. Then she’d kept control by taking a seat without being invited. There was nothing wrong with that, of course, but he was used to having to remind people they could sit down. No one, it seemed, wanted to risk his ire by sitting before he did. But she hadn’t hesitated for a second.

Then, she’d stood up just as quickly in order to look him in the eye while making her case. Most people he met with, men and women, looked at the floor or the file folders they clutched in their sweaty hands…anything not to look at him and invite the possibility of his scrutiny. But once more, she’d done the exact opposite of everyone else. She’d looked him straight in the eye, inviting—maybe even welcoming—his scrutiny.

She clearly wasn’t afraid of him, which was a new feeling for him.

She was also, hands-down, the sexiest gem historian he’d ever met. Technically, she was the only gem historian he’d ever met, but he doubted anyone else in her profession had such luscious curves. Hers weren’t on obvious display, but she’d hinted at them with the tightly cinched belt of her coat.

Her bright red coat.

Sébastien shook his head. He’d had no idea the woman on the sidewalk was Ella. If he had, he might still have commented on her odd behavior before entering the building. He found himself intensely curious about her. What was in those photographs, and what had she been muttering to herself before looking up at his office window? If she had an ulterior motive in seeking him out, she’d done a hell of a job hiding it.

It begged the question…what else was she hiding?

It was possible that she was exactly who she said she was.

It was also possible that, like virtually everyone else he came into contact with, she wanted something from him. Maybe she was just waiting for the right moment to get it.

He pressed the intercom button on his desk phone and asked Hannah to have a car meet Ella downstairs. He gave instructions to the driver to shuttle Ella to her office to pick up her equipment, then take her straight to his home, where she’d begin work in the vault immediately.

If she was as good as her word, nothing could stop his exhibition from happening now.

Sébastien smiled.

Finally, he’d prove to his mother and everyone else that he was ready to resume his place at the head of the Cherbourg family. Just last night, his mother had raised a toast to him before supper, praising the dedication he’d shown in arranging this exhibition of the family’s prized jewelry collection. Although she’d left for Dallas that morning on a shopping trip, she’d promised to return in time for the grand opening.

He hated to admit it—and wouldn’t, not to anyone—but his mother’s praise made him feel like he was on the right track again. This exhibition was exactly what he needed to cement his status within the family. It was the only way he could prove to them that he was still in control of himself, that Amanda hadn’t thrown him for a loop.

Amanda Lessing, his former fiancée, had left him two days before their wedding when he’d presented her with the Cherbourg family pre-nuptial agreement. He’d explained it to her several times before, but for some reason, seeing it in person had had a different effect entirely. She’d torn it up, sobbed, screamed, and raged—and walked out the door when he admitted the pre-nuptial agreement was a condition of his father’s will. It was non-negotiable, something he couldn’t get around if he tried. The endowment for the museum, the trust fund, the company shares, the house, the cars, everything—it was all his by the good graces of his father’s will for one more year, until he inherited it outright at the age of thirty-five. Until then, he was bound to every codicil of that will.

But Amanda hadn’t been willing to wait. Once she understood that he didn’t yet control his own destiny, she’d packed her things and fled into the gray San Francisco fog. That had been a year ago. She’d never talked to him again, not even when his 35th birthday came and went. Part of him had hoped she’d come back. Maybe then he could have convinced himself there was some part of him, other than his trust fund, that she’d liked.

It didn’t happen.

The worst part of it was that his family had warned him. His mother, in particular, had tried to tell him she was a gold-digging virago, but he’d refused to listen. Like any son raised with a silver spoon, however, he’d assumed he knew best and forbid his aunts, uncles, and mother from speaking against Amanda in his presence.

That rule remained in effect until her departure, when he’d thrown all of her remaining possessions and any pictures of her over the staircase, frames and all, to watch them plummet to the foyer floor fifty feet below.

Now no one mentioned her at all.

He’d learned his lesson the hard way. Women wanted the Cherbourg name and they didn’t care who was attached to it. It didn’t matter how kind or generous or loving he was toward them. They never saw it. They didn’t care. He was just a walking bank account to them.

He knew he’d never forget the look on Amanda’s face when he’d told her that the conditions of his father’s will were inviolable. Her eyes, so big and chocolate brown, had turned hard and unfeeling. In a heartbeat, all the emotions he thought he’d seen in them, ranging from desire to admiration, changed to disgust.

Once he’d gotten over the shock, he realized how big a mistake he’d almost made. What if he’d married Amanda? What if she’d gotten her hooks into his family?

Never again, he thought. I will never sacrifice my family’s future for the sake of a woman.

He knew he’d have to marry someday, if only to perpetuate the Cherbourg name. But when the time came, he’d select a willing young bride from the legions of Upper East Side debutantes presented in New York. He planned to whisk her home to San Francisco, where she’d bear his children and sit on the board of as many charities as he could wrangle, all while wearing a tidy strand of pearls and taking care to keep her hair the perfect shade of ash blonde. He never wanted to be asked about money, and he never wanted to feel the pain that came with the realization that he came second in her affections, behind a pile of dead presidents.

He picked up the file folder that the red-coated woman had left for him. It held a copy of her resume and letters of recommendation. Her credentials were impeccable, but something about her made him feel ill at ease…and it wasn’t just because of the hourglass figure he couldn’t forget. He closed his eyes and pictured her once more. From the swell of her breasts to her tiny waist to her shapely calves, she made him want to see what was under that red coat…to feel what was under that red coat.

But her body wasn’t what made him nervous.

It was the rest of her—or, to be more precise, the way she’d looked at him.

She had none of the usual nervousness of a job applicant, or the sugary-sweet flattery of a woman asking for a favor. Instead, there was something deeper, something stronger, lurking behind her pretty face. That face, framed by shoulder-length brown hair and dappled with freckles just beneath her eyes, had actually looked frightened just before he’d given her the job. Her gray-blue eyes, the color of the bay on a stormy day, were no stranger to fear, although she clearly knew how to manage it.

What did she have to be scared of? With credentials like hers, he’d be an idiot not to hire her. Any hesitation she felt had to result from a personal fear, not a professional one. But she couldn’t possibly be frightened of him. They’d never even met until this morning.

He scanned her resume and made a mental note to contact Jake Grodin about it later. Perhaps his private investigator could dig up some more information and find out what the hell had her running scared.

He looked out his floor-to-ceiling window and sighed. He didn’t want to find out that she’d lied to him, or that she was a gold digger like Amanda. Women had tried all sorts of things to claw their way into his heart and home, but he’d held them all at arm’s length. He had to, unless he wanted to risk another Amanda situation. His money was what those women wanted, but in an ironic twist, that money was what kept him out of their clutches. Anyone who thought they could take advantage of him would get eaten alive, either by his fleet of private investigators or his fleet of flesh-eating lawyers.

Sébastien closed her file. “What are you hiding, Ella Wilcox? And how long will it take me to find out?”

Chapter Two

The air in the vault was hot and sticky. Ella had been working for twelve hours straight and her blouse was soaked through with sweat.

Sébastien had been as good as his word. He’d arranged for a car to take her from the Cherbourg tower to her office and then to Joyeuse, his mansion in Russian Hill. She’d gotten the key to the vault from the estate manager, Yves, and set up shop about 11 o’clock that morning. With her loupe, her digital camera, and her laptop, she’d cataloged about one-third of the Cherbourg family jewel collection.

She’d seen an emerald and diamond tiara that was undoubtedly Russian in provenance, and a sapphire brooch that looked suspiciously like something that used to belong to the Shah of Iran. Sébastien’s grandmother, Annaliese Cherbourg, had been a notorious admirer of beautiful jewels and her deceased husband had circled the earth to buy them for her.

So far, Ella hadn’t found anything illegal, let alone anything that linked the Cherbourgs to the stones that had disappeared from her father’s workshop. Even though she had more than half of the vault to go through, it was already past 11 o’clock in the evening. She’d have to work fast to meet her 24-hour deadline.

The jewels were all stored in their original padded velvet boxes, stacked on stainless steel shelves arranged against each wall. She worked as quickly and methodically as she could, cataloging each piece with a photo, an appraisal, and a rubber stamp on the piece’s existing paperwork. If the receipt and certificate of provenance were from a reliable vendor, such as Harry Winston or Van Cleef & Arpels, she bypassed it almost immediately. For jewels without such documentation, however, her job became much more difficult.

First, she had to search the jewel itself in order to find the craftsman’s insignia, usually stamped or carved into the back of the frame. Then she had to cross-reference it with her online catalog to try and match the jewel to a published listing of the artist’s work. If the piece had no signature, she was up a creek—it was up to her to analyze the stones, metal, and style, and then form an opinion about the jewel’s origins.

Sometimes she had helpful clues, like the true “pigeon’s blood” red color of a Burmese ruby. Other times, she found herself stumped, wishing she had more than 24 hours. Given a few days, she could uncover much more, but in a few hours, she had no time for exhaustive research. What’s worse, none of the stones she’d seen in unmarked pieces matched the photographs she still carried with her—photographs from her father’s workshop, taken a week before the robbery.

Ella replaced a domed necklace case on the steel shelf and leaned against it wearily. She could feel beads of sweat pooling between and under her breasts. Her body ached as if she’d been beaten up by a playground bully. “Twelve hours and not a thing,” she groaned.

It had never occurred to her that the Cherbourgs weren’t involved in her father’s murder.

Her father, Frederick Wilcox, had been the best jewelry restoration craftsman in the Bay Area. At the time of the robbery, he’d just gotten a big write-up in the Chronicle for the restoration of a Romanov prince’s family heirlooms. San Francisco was filled with the sons and daughters of Russian émigrés who had fled the revolution. Her father had always loved seeing the treasured jewels their parents and grandparents had brought with them from Russia. He would labor for hours to reset loose stones and make paste copies of stones that had been lost. He believed gems were fossilized pieces of fire and light, and their beauty had never ceased to amaze him.

“Jewels are a collection of memories,” he’d told her. “When you look at your golden locket or your mother’s diamond ring, you’ll always remember where you wore it, who gave it to you, and why. Now imagine wearing something a hundred years old. Imagine how many people lived and loved while wearing those stones close to their hearts! The stones hold onto all of it. When you wear them, you’ll feel it. If you ever feel lonely, just slip one of these on.” He’d handed her one of his Victorian rings, a golden band set with an amethyst and a tourmaline. “You’ll never be alone, not with all this stone’s memories to keep you company.”

Even now, eighteen years later, her father’s words still had the power to affect her.

Ella bent her head and blinked back tears. “But I wanted you to keep me company, Dad,” she said.

Immediately, she began to think of all the things they never got the chance to do. He never met her at the finish line of her high school cross-country races. She never had to explain why she came home late after a first date. She never waved to him from a stage as she graduated from high school and then college.

It wasn’t fair.

She reached for the thin golden chain at her neck. It dipped deep below her blouse’s neckline, holding her parents’ wedding rings against her heart. Her mother had died of cancer when she was three. The shop had been robbed and her father shot to death a mere five years later.

No matter how many times she tried, she could never erase the terrible memory of that night: the angry shouts, the sight of a masked man pulling a gun on her father, the explosion of red droplets that pelted her face when the man shot her father in the chest. He’d collapsed on the floor and died in her arms as she cried and smoothed his hair, begging him not to leave her.

The robbers had taken everything of value in the shop, tossing every jewel on her father’s workbench into a sack and fleeing into the night. The police had never been able to solve the crime, and they’d never located any of the stolen jewels.

Neither she nor the police could prove it, but both Ella and the investigating officer shared the same theory. They believed that since the stones never showed up on the black market, they must have gone straight into a private collection. It was the most logical explanation, but it still made her sick to think of some society woman like Annaliese Cherbourg draped in the jewels her father had given his life for. Ella had no idea what she’d do if she ever found one of the jewels from her father’s workshop. All she knew was that she had to keep looking.

A tear slipped down her cheek and she brushed it away. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, she commanded. You’ll never find anything if you sit here and cry all night.

She took a deep breath and brought her parents’ wedding rings to her lips. “I’m still trying,” she whispered. “Don’t give up on me.”

***

It was two hours later, just after one o’clock a.m., when she found it. On the fourteenth row of boxes, three down from the top, she pulled out a small velvet container. Cushioned on the blue satin interior lay a small brooch, oval in shape with a baroque pearl drop. Unusual for a piece of fine jewelry, the main stone was an uncut ruby. Uncut stones were usually found in ethnic, natural, or hippie-inspired jewelry—not attached to baroque pearls.

Ella reached for her loupe and took a closer look at the stone. She’d always loved the dusty pink color of uncut rubies. They reminded her of a painted desert or faded rose, very lush and romantic. But when she saw the magnified stone, she gasped and almost dropped the brooch.

She’d seen that stone before.

It wasn’t visible to the naked eye, but the stone was actually a star ruby, with imperfections called rutile needles that made it look like a star was frozen beneath the gem’s surface. Most star rubies had six rays, but this stone had twelve.

Twelve-star rubies were extremely rare.

Ella could still hear her father’s voice describing the unique stone. “See here, Ellie?” he’d said, pointing with a needle at the striations. “That’s called asterism, where a mineral called titanium dioxide forms thin lines inside the stone that look like a star.”

Looking down at the Cherbourg brooch, she knew she was seeing the exact same stone her father had pointed out to her years ago. “I found it, Dad,” she breathed, closing her fist over the brooch. “Now what?”

“‘Now what’ what?” a deep voice behind her asked.

Ella shrieked and jumped. The brooch tumbled out of her hands and fell to the floor. She picked it up immediately, brushing it off and replacing it in the velvet box. “You scared me,” she said, knowing she was blushing but unable to do anything about it.

Sébastien’s face was hard and unforgiving, like a stone chiseled from the granite mountains of the Pyrenees. He wore the same gray slacks and white dress shirt he had earlier, minus the suit jacket. “Are we on schedule, Ms. Wilcox?”

Ella felt her thoughts scatter in all directions. “Y-yes,” she stuttered, hoping he would just go away and let her work in peace.

“What have you got there?” He bent over her to look at the jewel. “I don’t remember seeing that one before.”

She was acutely conscious of his towering gaze. From his vantage point, he could definitely see down her shirt. She pinched the neck of her blouse closed. “D-did your mother ever wear it?”

“How the hell should I know?”

“Do you know when your family acquired it?”

“Ms. Wilcox,” he said, stepping back and placing one hand high up on the shelf. “I hope we’re not going to have a problem here. Your job is to tell the museum my family didn’t steal this jewelry. Are you really going to waste our time and quiz me on how often my mother wore a brooch?”

“No, there’s no problem,” she lied. “I’m just trying to be thorough.”

“Be fast, not thorough.”

Anger flared in her chest. How dare he order her around? Just because he was rich didn’t mean he could control her. “I’ll work as quickly as I can,” she said, “but the museum expects my work to be of a certain quality and I intend to give it to them.”

Sébastien’s green eyes flashed with fury. “I don’t care what you intend. I want the job finished by sunrise. Do I make myself clear?”

She clamped her lips shut to keep from making a sarcastic reply. As he stalked out of the vault, she glared over her shoulder at him. “Would it have killed you to offer me some water?”

From halfway down the hall, his voice came booming back at her. “I’m disappointed in you, Ms. Wilcox. I thought you knew how to ask for what you wanted.”

Even though he couldn’t see it, Ella performed an angry salute. Then she turned back to her work, more aware than ever of how little time she had.

***

Sébastien left the vault and went upstairs to the kitchen, where he found his housekeeper, Gertrude Müller. A gray-haired drill sergeant, she ran Joyeuse as if she were in charge of a military incursion. She bossed everyone around as if the house were her own, including Sébastien, his mother, the valet, the cook, their personal physician, and the rest of the staff.

Ordinarily, he would never have allowed anyone on his payroll to talk back to him, but he knew how hard it was to find people who could tolerate his family. His mother was absent-minded, strong-willed, and heavily medicated—a dangerous combination. He’d never given his wild little sister an order she wouldn’t ignore or violate. The various aunts, uncles, and cousins who drifted by from time to time would have walked out with the silver if Frau Müller hadn’t taken it upon herself to manage everyone under her roof with a will of iron. With never a hair out of place or a button unbuttoned, Frau Müller viewed life as black and white: her way or the highway.

“Gertrude,” he said, to catch her attention.

She was making her final rounds before retiring to her room for the night. Despite the late hour, she was still dressed in a plain black housedress with a gray cable-knit cardigan buttoned over it. She adjusted her iron-rimmed glasses before speaking. “Yes, sir?”

“I know it’s late, but I’d appreciate it if you took a tray down to the vault. The woman the museum sent over is finishing her appraisal for the exhibition on Saturday. I just checked on her and she looked very…hot.”

Frau Müller raised a steely gray eyebrow.

“Overheated,” he snapped. “You know what I meant.”

He stayed in the kitchen long enough to see Gertrude nod, then retreated upstairs to his suite. He wasn’t accustomed to embarrassment, but he could feel his cheeks redden beneath his daily accumulation of stubble.

“Hot” was exactly what he’d meant, in more ways than one.

Underneath her coat, Ella had looked exactly as he’d pictured her: soft and curvy, rounded in all the right places. He’d watched her bend over to pick up the fallen brooch, eyeing the lush curve of her derriere and the way her tight jeans clung to her body. Her cream-colored blouse, soaked through with sweat, had revealed the outlines of her generous bosom, with pert pink nipples he’d been able to see through her thin bra. Despite the heat, he’d noticed, her nipples had perked right up as soon as she’d seen him.

This is the last thing I need, he thought, trying to calm the rush of blood that swept through his veins when he pictured her hardened nipples. Kissable or not, she’d been salivating over his mother’s brooch. He replayed the scene in his mind over and over again, but something bothered him every time. The emotion on her face as she handled the brooch hadn’t been greed, which was what he’d expect. Instead, she’d been looking at it with an expression of fear. Just like the fear she’d shown, if only for a moment, when she was afraid she wouldn’t get the job.

Ella was definitely hiding something…but what?

Whatever it was, it would have to wait until daylight.

Sébastien unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the back of a chair. He stripped off the rest of his clothes, more than ready to slip into bed and get some sleep. He’d put so much effort into organizing this exhibition that he hardly had the energy to fantasize about having a woman in his bed, let alone seeking out a real one.

There was no shortage of willing women among the city’s society belles and hangers-on, but no matter how many of them he dated, he always felt he was missing something. They soothed his body and stroked his ego, but nothing they said or did made him feel anything for them.

An image of Ella flashed through his mind as he slipped under the covers.

He dismissed it instantly.

She was clearly smart and sexy as hell, but she had a job to do. He was the one who’d imposed the 24-hour deadline on her. He couldn’t very well go down and ask if she’d like to take a break…in his bed. Besides, he still didn’t know what she was hiding, and that bothered him more than he wanted to admit. As much as he wanted slide his fingers over those pert nipples, he couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d kept hidden from him.

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The Cherbourg Jewels – Available in Digital & Paperback

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