“Entering now.” She swept inside, time ticking away inside her mind. Here it was lighter than the foyer had been, thin rays of moonlight seeping in from the unadorned windows. For days she’d poured over the blueprint of the apartment, so she knew exactly where to go. The owner, according to her contacts, was vacationing in the French Riviera with his mistress. The wife was here, though—hopefully sleeping.
Silently Farrah moved, rounding corners and taping tiny cameras onto the walls, each one giving River a direct view of her surroundings. “Hallway one, live,” he said. A pause, then the clatter of his keyboard. “Living room, live. Uh, you’ve got a man asleep on the couch.”
Farrah backtracked, used a dart on the third guard, or whoever he was, then leapt back into motion.
“Kitchen, live,” River said. Pause, clatter. “Hallway two, live.”
The study was up next. Reaching the double doors, Farrah’s exhilaration intensified. This was it. The room. She gave the knob an experimental twist. Big surprise, it was locked. Not with a simple pin-tumbler or a wafer-tumbler, either, but a tubular lock, with pins all the way around the circumference of the cylinder plug.
Usually she preferred museums to private collectors. More of a challenge. This job, however, was proving to be quite fun. “How am I on time?” she whispered, dropping her bag and crouching down. She withdrew the proper tools.
“Four minutes, two seconds.”
She inserted the pick gun, a vibrating piece of metal that pushed the lock’s pins up to the shear line, all the while working the tension wrench into the bottom hole. Click. “I’m in.”
“Six seconds,” River said. “Not your record, but not bad.”
Farrah quietly entered the study, her boots sinking into the thick crimson rug. Even through her mask, she smelled woodsy cigar smoke, leather and freshly polished oak. The spacious room boasted wall-to-wall bookshelves. There was a desk in the center, a cushioned chair and several display cases perched on small marble stands.
“Do you see it?” River asked, his excitement palpable.
Her gaze scanned…scanned…seeing many artifacts and several pieces of jewelry until finally lighting on a small wooden box. Dark, surmounted by a deliciously carved face—a man’s face, Farrah realized, when she stood just in front of it—with a glittery golden cord wrapped around the middle.
The gold embossed tag underneath read, Pandora’s box. Satisfaction hummed inside of her.
“Contact,” she said, awed.
Never taking her eyes from the item, she extracted the glass-cutter and a strip of velvet from her bag. The box was certainly beautiful, the most beautiful and detailed she’d ever seen. And the masculine face was a sight to behold, savage, raw, elemental, pulling all of her feminine instincts to the surface. Still, she didn’t know why the buyer was willing to pay her a cool mil for it. Especially since Pandora was a legend, a myth, and there was probably nothing inside.
With precise movements, Farrah sliced a circle in the glass, keeping it suctioned to the cutter so that it didn’t fall to the ground and shatter. She set the piece on top of the case.
Open the box.
She’d been in the process of reaching out when the words whispered across her mind. Deep, masculine. Seductive…Like the face.
Surprised, she straightened and frowned. “Did you just tell me to open it?” she asked River.
“Nope. No time for that. You need to get your ass in gear. Less than three minutes remaining.”
Open it. See what’s inside.
What was wrong with her? Farrah shook her head, clasped the box, and carefully wrapped it in the velvet. She secured the package inside her bag, part of her hoping to hear the voice again.
“Shit,” River suddenly bit out. “The wife is awake and walking into the kitchen.”
“She probably got spooked when the power went out and is fixing a midnight snack. We’re okay,” she said, but she was already moving to the far window. She slipped out of her trench.
“Just get the hell out of there, would ya?”
“Not long,” River said. “Less than a minute.”
Before he’d finished the last word, the lights flicked on. The heater kicked on, as well, emitting a gentle hum. Farrah swished aside the drapes and raised the window. Cold air blustered all around her as she gathered her coat and bag, then stepped onto the ledge.
“The wife is trying to wake the guard,” River said with an edge of panic. Then, “She found the dart in his neck. Damn it, she’s running toward the study.”
“Good thing I’m leaving.” Heart pumping with delicious speed, Farrah slid the ultra-thin wiregun from her bag, raised her arm and squeezed a shot. The sharp tip embedded in the beam above her head. She tugged once, twice, making sure the line was secure. Then she jumped, feet first, and flew toward the ground.
The wire slowed just before she hit—she’d measured the distance before ever entering the building—then stopped altogether, softly lowering her to a stand. She released the handle, removed her mask and casually walked away from the building as if she hadn’t a care.
She was smiling.
INSIDE THE BOX, M ADDOX seethed with his need to escape. Close, so close. He’d spoken to the woman, and she’d heard him. No one else had ever heard him. But she had hidden him away, cutting him off from her erotic voice. A voice that caused every cell in his body to awaken, to roar, demanding release. How long since he’d spent himself inside a female? How long since he’d known anything except darkness? How long since the beast inside him had experienced the sweet taste of violence?
Did the woman mean to forget him? Oh, he would allow no such thing. He would convince her to free him—and she would be able to do so, as no other human had been able, he knew it—and his body’s long-denied needs would, at last, be met. And yes, the beast would, at last, be unleashed….
A TOTAL SUCCESS. A GAIN. Farrah was coming off her adrenaline high, but she couldn’t stop smiling. No casualties, no foot or car chase. Just a job well done.
The buyer had insisted she meet with him the same night she “acquired” the box. Perhaps he thought she’d sell it to someone else. Perhaps he simply couldn’t wait to hold it in his hands. Either way, Farrah texted him, letting him know the box was in her possession and she would meet him at their agreed upon location in one hour.
“I’ll be waiting,” was his nearly instantaneous response. He was already in Dallas, had probably flown out before her, three weeks ago.
She didn’t know his name or even what he looked like, and she preferred it that way. They always met in the shadows. In the last six months, she’d done several jobs for him, all of them boxes very similar to the one in her bag. What he wanted with them, she didn’t know. He paid without balking and never tried to renegotiate. That was what mattered to Farrah.
“Wanna see it?” she asked River.
He didn’t have to ask what “it” was. “Hell, yeah, I want to see it.” He kept his attention on the road as he maneuvered their sedan along the highway. They’d switched out the van in favor of a rental that would blend with every other car on the road. Tall streetlights whizzed past them, illuminating, then drowning in shadows. Trees and buildings flashed in and out of view. “That baby’s gonna buy me a kick-ass Lamborghini.”
Farrah settled the bag on her stomach. She kicked her legs onto the dash and sunk deeper into her seat. “Why a Lamborghini?” She would have expected him to list all the computer equipment he couldn’t live another moment without.
“Owning a ride like that is like stumbling upon an island of naked, horny women whose sole goal in life is to pleasure you.”
“No, it’s not,” she scoffed. “I would never date a guy just because he drives a nice car.”
“That’s because you don’t date, period.”
No, she didn’t. Men were not a priority for her. They couldn’t be. They’d learn her secret and betray her. As she well knew.
In the quiet of the night, as she lay in bed, she might long for one, for strong arms and heat and passion. For sex that was hot and hard, pounding. But she would never allow herself to indulge. There was no one she could trust—except River, but he didn’t count. They were best friends, practically brother and sister.
“You’re a good-looking kid—”
“Man,” he interjected with a pointed glare. His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “We’ve had this discussion before. I’m a man. Not a kid, not a boy. You get me?”
“Fine. You’re a good-looking man.” He was tall and lean, perhaps too lean. He had light brown hair, piercing green eyes and deceptively angelic features. “If a girl—woman—doesn’t want you for who you are, you shouldn’t want her.”
He rolled his eyes. “You act like I’m looking for something serious. I’m a perv looking for action, Farr, that’s all. Now show me the box already. Your conversation skills suck.”
Fighting a grin, Farrah dug inside the bag and lifted the black velvet mound. Slowly, gently, she unwound the material layer by soft layer. The intricately carved top came into view, the man’s face somehow more savage than she remembered. Her stomach fluttered deliciously. If only such a powerful man truly existed….
River darted a quick glance at it and whistled. “That’s the coolest one so far. Have you opened it yet? Was it empty like the others?”
“No. And I don’t know.” The buyer had dictated she not open a single box. Of course, she disobeyed every time, her curiosity too great. Now, however…with the voice… She was a little afraid, which was stupid.
“Ah, come on. Open, open, open,” River chanted.
Her hand shook as she reached for the glittery gold ribbon. As if on cue, the voice returned.
Open it, he beseeched. His husky, wine-rich timbre filled her head, invaded her blood, tingling along the surface of her skin. Open it and see what’s inside.